God’s gift of the law…

I wonder what comes to mind if I say words like ‘law’, ‘commandments’, or ‘rules’. There is a kind of prejudice in Christian circles about laws and commandments, I think. And perhaps especially so among those of us who like to think of ourselves as ‘nonconformist’ Christians. I think this takes several forms.

I can remember that I was brought up with the notion that Jesus’ opponents were trying to defend ‘the law’, whereas he was bringing good news. They were legalistic, dry, hypocrites – whereas he was open-minded, gracious, and loving. I have since learned that this is a false dichotomy and that beneath it lurks rather a lot of pretty toxic anti-semitism. Jesus was as interested as any of his contemporaries, it seems to me, in what the greatest laws were and what commandments he wanted his followers to keep. Like all faithful Jews he regarded laws, or the Law, as gifts from God, to be treasured, argued about and lived.

I have heard many times Christains in our tradition say that they sit light to all sorts of things that the church might say or might ask them to say or do, because we are ‘nonconformists’ who don’t just do what we’re told. A word like obedience would be little valued, I think, in the URC. And while I have every sympathy with those who want to be alert to what laws and commandments, guidelines and rules are about and why they are there, and to be part of challenging and debating what are the right laws, I think we all know what happens when everyone thinks the laws just don’t apply to them. Covid-19 has taught us something of that.

And then, I have a vivid memory of a day when I was a trainee minister on placement and I had just led the prayers of intercession in a local church. A venerable member of the congregation, a man of great wisdom, simply asked me why we always pray for teachers, doctors and nurses, but never for lawyers, solicitors, judges… are they not also doing God’s work? I’ve never forgotten that. As it turned out he was a court judge himself – and over decades he had wondered why no ministers ever seemed to pray for him in the high and onerous task he had been given. He had laboured hard to do his job in a way that was faithful to the God he worshipped, but he had wondered why the church did not seem to value what he did.

So, on a Sunday when the ten commandments appear in the lectionary, I thought that I should draw breath and have a go and think about what to say. I think that these famous ten commandments are part of a very great story of how God teaches us to live together in goodness, peace and justice. And it is part of a story that continues and with which we still wrestle.  But it’s always a story in which we will need to engage and argue and think and pray – never a story that’s ended. The law, whether in the Bible or in Hansard, is part of the long conversation of God with God’s people. And part of a long conversation that we often need to hear punctuated by the Jesus who when he was asked ‘which is the greatest commandment?’ said ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. He summed it up like that, but I don’t think for a moment he ever thought there was nothing else to say – because lots of his parables are trying to do what we do all the time in life and courtrooms and church; they were trying to help us understand the implications of that… and we will always want to do that.

Sometimes people talk as though the Old Testmant had one view of the law and the New Testament another, but I think it’s much better to see it all as part of one long conversation in which there are highlight moments and insight moments too. And the conversation didn’t stop in Exodus or in John’s Gospel (that new commandment in John 13 is surely not exhausted…).

So let’s listen to some highlights in this fascinating conversation…

Sometimes people criticise the Old Testament for being all about ‘a eye for an eye’ (Leviticus 24:19 eg), as though that was barbaric and brutal. But, we have to remember that such a moment was a highlight moment in understanding how God wants us to be with one another. There are still parts of the world even today (and maybe even in this country sometimes) where someone can be punished in a way that far outweighs the crime… So there are places in the world where you can have a hand cut off for stealing or be publicly flogged for adultery. And you can go into any of our prisons in this country and find people who are effectively being punished for being mentally ill – and they haven’t really done anything wrong or nothing they could really be blamed for. The ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’ principle was a great way at the time to say that the punishment must not exceed the crime. Don’t mutilate someone because they had to steal bread to feed their children – or execute someone for fraud. It sounds to our ears like a heavy punishment, but in its time it said, ‘Be proportionate’…. Let there be justice… not cruelty.

And then the ten commandments. Well, it’s interesting that Christians have so often painted these up on their walls (as at our own church), as though they are universal rules, the kind of rules that will apply anywhere and anytime. But they are not quite that really. They are part of a much longer conversation about what laws we ought to have, and who they should protect and what they are there to help us be. I wonder how many of you could recite them – there are even two slightly different versions in the Bible (there’s another set in Deuteronomy 5)? But it’s also true, as it always with laws, if you think about it, that they serve a particular group of people – and not simply ‘everyone’. I’m grateful to an Australian biblical scholar called David Clines for pointing out that the ten commandments assume that they are addressed to a man, an Israelite, who is employed, a house-owner, who is married, old enough to have working children, but young enough to have living parents, who lives in a ‘city’, and possesses an ox and an ass and slaves. He is important enough to be asked to give evidence in a lawsuit and is capable of committing and tempted to commit everything he is asked not to here, and likely to ignore the things he is told to do. So, to sum up, he is ‘a balding Israelite urban male with a mid-life crisis and a weight problem, in danger of losing his faith’. Everyone else is not included: women, foreigners, slaves, children, the landless, day labourers and the urban poor… These might be great laws for some, but it turns out they serve the interests of the privileged. Who needs laws against theft except those who have property to be stolen?

So, the conversation about law had to and has to go on; so that one day we can have commandments that tell slave owners they have to let the slaves go free, and so that one day we can have laws that make women equal or that protect the oxen and the asses from harm. The ten commandments mark a high point in the conversation about what makes for a good society; trust, sabbath rest, respect for parents, trust in God. But they are not perfect and conversation has to go on with God.

It’s striking how much of Jesus’ conversations were with lawyers or with those who wanted to know about the law and the commandments. And we must never assume these questionners were disingenuous – they really wanted to know. This was a living conversation about what really is justice, what kind of a world we want, how we should be living. And Jesus engaged in this fully and wholeheartedly.

One example is the Gospel story we heard today – but it’s a controversial passage. Quite often you find it missing from the Gospel at that point or tagged on at the end with the note that tells you that the manuscripts are not always clear and maybe it’s not an original part of the Gospel. But it’s not hard to imagine why someone might have thought this story was dangerous. Does it say that Jesus was soft on sin? it tells me is that Jesus and the people of his time were deeply engaged in a conversation about the law. If they hadn’t themselves already wondered whether they should do exactly what it says in some parts of the law they wouldn’t have asked the question of Jesus. This was a living and lively conversation; what should we do? Should we really stone someone for this? And what about the man involved? Jesus tells them ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’. And they left one by one – beginning with the elders… And we are left asking – did Jesus mean without this sin or without any sin? We can ask – did the oldest ones recognise more readily than the zealous young ones that we all sin… or was that just co-incidence? We can ask, how would law work if only the ultra-righteous operated it? And we can note that Jesus does not condemn her – but he does not do away with the commandment either – in fact he reinforces it and tells her not to sin again – at the same time as he doesn’t condemn her. Is this another highlight moment in the great conversation about the law?

But what strikes me so powerfully today about Jesus, and for me this is his highlight moment, is the commandment that he gives the disciples at the last supper – in John’s Gospel. He says, in John 13:34, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.’ And in these few words be challenges everything I thought I once knew about law and love. I was taught that law and Gospel, law and love, were contrasts, opposites even. But here Jesus gives us a law about love, a commandment to love one another, an instruction to do something that we expect to fall into as though we can’t control ourselves. Love he says, is not a feeling, but a gift and a promise and a commitment. You have to do it. Them’s the rules. And of course we can’t do it yet – and the rules of the land or the international court of human rights or any other legal system you can think of haven’t got there yet. But the conversation goes on and it must – until laws are driven by love and made in kindness. The conversation goes on; and we need people of faith to be part of it. And we need good lawyers, and judges and politicians and civil servants and international organisations. And we should pray for them.

We have only to think for a moment, or to read the Lord of the Flies, to know that good laws are a gift from God. Those who wrote the books of our Bible knew this; Jesus and his questioners knew this, and we know this too. So let us thank God for the ten commandments, but even more for the long conversation of which they are a part. And let us hear today, as though we hadn’t heard before, the commandment that Jesus gave his discples when he was sharing a meal with them; ‘Love one another’. Amen.