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SERMON FOR THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE LENT – YEAR A – 12.2.17

✠ May I speak in the name of our loving God, who alone gives the growth – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This year we will hear passages from St. Matthew’s gospel Sunday after Sunday. We think this gospel was addressed to Christians who came from the most observant groups of Jewish believers, and it often features the kind of argument that rabbis and their students would spend time on. Essentially they were asking what every believer asks: what exactly does the word of God mean and how do we respond? You can see the disciples doing this with Jesus. Unfortunately over the years, as argumentative people do – particularly well-educated ones – these fervent believers had got themselves so involved in the arguments and their internal logic, they were surrounded by trees and lost sight of the wood.

For us to sort all this out, it helps to know, particularly, about a guiding idea which lay behind strict observance. It involved what was called “fencing the law”. The term is more recent than Jesus’ time, but I cannot believe the practice does not stretch back to when Leviticus was written – all those laws! Fencing the law works like this: for instance, if the law was to do no work on the Sabbath, then to avoid breaking that, the scholars would helpfully put up a “fence” further out: a buffer zone of an hour each side of the Sabbath day; rules for preparing food the day before so that no cooking would be done on the day etc. You can see how this could run and run.

Today’s gospel seems to show us Jesus at his most uncompromising. He is come not to destroy the Law but to make it stronger. Matthew is describing a Messiah who can take the scholars on and win. But this presents a problem for us: where is our loving, forgiving Lord? As Jesus discusses murder, adultery and false witness, it appears there is no end to the ramifications of one individual law, so how could anyone possibly obey all 666 of them? Has he really come just to bring massive and detailed guilt?

The thing is, if you follow the logic of each of these commandments, then what Jesus is saying is perfectly true. You might not like it, but if you want to avoid murder, then you have to set the fence much further out, and ensure you insult no-one. If you want to avoid adultery, you have to set the fence much further out, and avoid even thinking about anyone but your partner. If
you want to avoid false witness, swearing on the Bible won’t ensure it, only
being in the habit of saying the whole truth and nothing but the truth will do.
We all know how hard it is not to do something once it has entered our heads. I’ve used the dieting metaphor before: on a diet you do nothing but think about the food you can’t eat. Trying to avoid adultery, you do nothing but covet your neighbour’s wife – and once on that road you end up coveting everything else as well. How on earth can we break this cycle?

The Old Testament reading, although it is still talking about keeping God’s laws and statutes, actually gives the clue. God offers his people a stark and seemingly over-simple choice. You either serve me and live – or not, and die. But then comes the phrase: “Choose life”. Whatever the laws and statutes may have ended up being, their original intention was to be a way of choosing life. Even at this stage in his relationship with his people, they know God is just wanting them to have life, and have it abundantly. But you have to choose.

Throughout his writings, Paul tells us what this actually entails. You can be an observant Jew and faultless, but still miss the point – I did it myself, he says. You can have a real way with words but only be a sounding bell if you’ve missed the point. Unless you have chosen love, he says, the rest is nonsense. For thousands of strictly observant Jews today, it is this choice – for life and love – which gives meaning to God’s word and to their response.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is telling us what the meaning behind the three commandments is – in terms of how to live them out. If you choose to serve God by obeying rules, you will have to set the bar really high. But even these examples mean nothing without the essential attitude which will make insults and lewd thoughts impossible and truth-telling inevitable. If you love your neighbours you just cannot make them feel inferior, you cannot objectify them in your head, you cannot deceive them. You’re not avoiding anything: it simply doesn’t occur to you.

And this is why, when Jesus reduces the Law to just two simple points, he is not destroying it but making it stronger. Fill your mind with the positives and the evil one hasn’t a chance. As Paul says, whatever is good, think on these things.

The lever which moves the world is to choose, and then see everything through that filter; living it out will follow. Choose life. Choose love. Amen.