You are what you see
Readings: Psalm 112:1-9; Matthew 5:13-20
It will go down in history that in the last hour of the last day of last month, after 47 years of membership, the United Kingdom left the European Union. And whether you were celebrating, despairing or sleeping through it all, we have to accept that our nations are now forging a different path to the one we were on so once again, we have to question who we are as a nation. What is our identity, our morality, our sense of purpose? The fact that one of the first moves taken by our current Government was to try to drop its commitment to family reunion for child refugees – which would have been a breach of international law and on which they were thankfully defeated in the Lords – does give me serious…but we must be hopeful, pray for wisdom for our leaders, and actively join in the discussion about the future of our nations. Who are we to become? Should we seek further independence? What does it actually mean to be ‘true to our land’?!
These questions – so significant for us today – were the very questions with which the nation of Israel was wrestling in Jesus’ day. The Jewish nation had been subjugated by neighbouring gentile empires for centuries, the Romans being the latest occupiers. The land, the holy city, the Temple even were ruled by others and so questions of identity, independence, insurrection even were rife and midst these discussions, three rival positions stood out. First there was the Zealots – a group so so passionate about their language and land that they wanted to take up arms and fight the Empire. The Sadducees, on the other hand, suggested that collaboration with the Empire was a more realistic and profitable enterprise. Then there were the Pharisees…a bit of a mixed bag…but a group who figured that if political independence was a stretch, the least Israel could do was preserve their cultural and religious identity with a strict observance of the Torah – the Jewish law as outlined in the Hebrew Testament and oral traditions.
We hear these three groups bandied around a lot in the New Testament but I encourage you to think, just for a few seconds, which group do you think you might have fallen into? Which group best mirrors your thinking and action when it comes to Welsh independence, “Making Britain Great Again”, or even about the identity and mission of the church today? Are you passionate about your language and land and want to free it by any means necessary? If so, you may have a touch of the Zealot about you! Do you look at religious or political radicals with disdain and seek a quieter, easier life? If so, you might be at home with the Sadducees. Do you desire greater cultural separation or have a hard time accepting that not everyone has the exact same way of living out their faith as you? If so, perhaps you’ve some Pharisee blood in you! In truth, of course, we’re most likely a mix of these very human traits…and it was against these tendencies that Jesus warned in his sermon on the mount – from which our Matthew reading comes.
In many ways, Jesus’ words on the Mount formed a radical political manifesto as well as world-changing theology. In his incendiary teaching, Jesus rejects the Zealot agenda for a violent uprising as cheeks were to be turned and enemies were to be loved, not hated. He also critiques the compromising Sadducee outlook by condemning the acquisition of worldly wealth and encouraging his disciples to strive instead for treasure in heaven. He then suggests that the strategy of the Pharisees was equally unfruitful for unless one’s righteousness exceeded theirs, one would not enter the kingdom of heaven!
So – three out of three critiqued by Jesus. And yet, whilst he’s by no means on the side of the Pharisees – with those obsessed by Jewish Law – Jesus does make it clear that he does share their passion for it;
“Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets,” Jesus tells the crowd. “I’m not here to demolish the Law but to complete it… In fact, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great.”
It’s a little confusing, isn’t it? Just when Jesus seems to critique the ways of the old guard and offer a radical new agenda for God’s brave new world instead, he tells his listeners to follow the Old Law! What is going on here?
Well this is something that Biblical scholars and systematic theologians love to argue about, throwing words like supersessionism and dispensationalism around with wild abandonment. And there’s something to be said about looking at their arguments. But today, I’d like to suggest that maybe the difference between Jesus’ and the Pharisees’ treatment of the Law was to do with vision. With how we see the world.
I think Jesus teaches that keeping Torah – keeping the Old Law – isn’t wrong in itself. Rather, he seems to be saying that the Pharisees are looking at the Law and the world all wrong. You see, both Jesus and the Pharisees thought the law was important…they both wanted people to follow and teach it because the Law was given by God as a gift to Israel – as a blueprint for how the world could be. Coming out of Egypt, a militaristic Empire built upon a literally pyramid shaped hierarchy where the elite few crushed the poor masses, God’s Law was to help the new nation thrive as a place of compassion and community – as a people who would care for the widow, orphan and refugee. The Law, then, could have been life-giving; it could have been a gift to the entire world – a way to fulfil God’s promise that through Abraham’s descendants, all the nations of the Earth would be blessed. But in the eyes of the Pharisees, it became a way to distance themselves from the world, not bless it. Theirs became a controlled and controlling system where they kept tabs on who was in and out, who was holy and who heretical. Instead of remembering God’s call to bless nations, the Pharisees saw the world through an in group/out group, black and white lens. For them, the rest of God’s creation had little life, taste or colour for they were to retreat from it, with the law standing as the boundary, the impenetrable wall, between their holy huddle and the malign masses.
And doesn’t that ring true to how some people see the world today? Doesn’t that sound similar to those within our nation who want to cut ourselves off from others, raise the drawbridge of fortress Britain and retreat to our former Empire elite?! Doesn’t it sound similar to those within the wider Church who divide people into the saved and the damned; of those who want the Church to retreat from the dark world, who encourage uniformity of belief, obedience to their interpretation of the Law and who are waiting – fairly impatiently, one must say – for God to act and redeem the elect?! Perhaps those of you reading our first Book Club novel or who read the recent Anglican pronouncements on marriage will see the Pharisaic similarities.
To them, to us, Jesus seems to be endorsing a different way of seeing. He appeared to view the law through the lens of God’s kingdom of justice and joy. He viewed the Torah as protecting the vulnerable, not ostracizing them; as a way of making God’s love, grace, hope visible in the world, not as a reason to retreat from it. While the Pharisees saw the world through a lens of sin and scarcity, Jesus spoke of blessings and life in abundance; of a world of aggressive kindness, bold humility and reckless grace; as the locus of an emerging kingdom which could best be likened to a massive party. While the Pharisees were waiting for God to save them, Jesus was pointing out where God was already at work in their midst. While they had hidden their light under a bushel, he was encouraging his listeners to shine away, brave and bright.
This is what I think he was doing with those salt and light allusions. He was saying that those pious prigs in the Temple have taken the wonder out of God’s world. They’ve bleached God’s law, making the world bland and monochrome, free from tint, taste or texture. So he calls on his listeners to get salty again! He calls on the crowd to look for and bring out the taste and colour that are already in the world. And so he calls us to shine light in dark places; to seek and show the technicolour transcendence of the divine in our midst; to share the good news that we’re not to retreat into our echo chambers and wait for God to redeem the elite few at the end of time but to go out into all the world now, looking and listening for where God is already at work, blessing the unlikely, disturbing the unloving, eating and drinking with the unlovely.
Today, of course, with climate crises and killer viruses; with corrupt politicians and growing divisions, the world might appear to be getting darker, to taste more bitter, feel a little scarier…which is why, more than ever, we must heed Jesus’ call for us to be salt and light. To invite others into God’s kingdom and taste the divinely delicious world. To look to see where God is already at work and get stuck in. To radiate God’s grace, love and joy to a people in need of good news and, perhaps most importantly, to be people of hope.
“The people living in darkness have seen a great light,” Matthew writes in the previous chapter, showing how an ancient prophesy was being fulfilled by the preacher from Nazareth, “On those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
That light was the light of hope. The light that said God had not abandoned those in need. The light that said that nothing – nothing today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – that nothing – no personal scandal, no national calamity, no global crisis – that not even death itself can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus has embraced us. That is the light which Jesus called his disciples then, and calls us here today, to keep radiating. With God’s help, let’s shine! Amen.