Friday, March 11, 2011

A Commentary on the Ten Commandments

Leviticus 19.9-18
Matthew 5.38 - 48

This passage from Leviticus is a commentary on some of the verses in the Ten Commandments. It contains some very challenging teaching which we still need to take seriously but, in fairness, it’s one of the few passages in Leviticus to which modern people can easily relate. The verses immediately before this passage are all about the right time to eat a sacrifice, and the verses immediately after it are about preventing different kinds of animals from mating, or different plants from cross-fertilising.

But verses 9 and 10 could have been written last week. They are a demand for landowners to embrace Big Society values and make sure that their harvest is not so efficient that their fields or vines are stripped bare. Instead, part of the crop is to be left for poor and landless people. And this isn’t just a pious hope, or a fanciful idea, or a pipedream, which is what many people think about the Big Society. It really happened. Ruth, the ancestor of King David, met Boaz - her future husband - while she was gleaning in one of his fields in Bethlehem. At the time she was a penniless immigrant, looking after her widowed mother-in-law. This was a society where ordinary people actively took responsibility for looking after one another.

However, the people who framed these laws are under no illusions about human nature. They don’t imagine that wealthy people, left to their own devices, will always do the decent thing. They explain that theft is not just about breaking into other people’s houses to steal the silver. It’s also about withholding an employee’s wages or deceiving your business partners by making false promises to them. And they solemnly warn people not to abuse the blind and the deaf.

Interestingly, though,the authors of Leviticus don’t accept the modern idea that God has a bias to the poor. They want the law to be administered with strict fairness. Presumably they would have approved of the idea of blind justice, wearing a blindfold to ensure her impartiality.

Finally, the law givers insist that the best way to live is to treat your neighbours as you yourself would wish to be treated. Seeking revenge, cherishing grudges, nursing hatred or being vindictive by trying to get your neighbour put to death when he’s facing a serious accusation are all ruled out, because we wouldn’t want to be the target of a revenge killing, would we, or a hate crime, or of a vindictive hue and cry if we were in a fix.

Just before the general election I held up a series of election pamphlets issued by the various local candidates and asked where was the Christian content in their campaigns? All of the Churches - the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, the Baptist Union, the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England - had encouraged politicians to consider an idea called restorative justice, but it was nowhere to be found in any of the election leaflets. And yet, after the election all of the parties quietly adopted restorative justice. There was what’s called a ‘cross-party agreement’ not to oppose the new legislation that the government is bringing in.

So, increasingly, if you’re a victim of crime you will be offered the chance to come face to face with the culprit and explain how much you’ve been hurt and hear their story. I’m still not entirely convinced it’s necessarily a good idea, but it’s certainly modelled in part on this passage from the Bible. In some ways, then, the concerns which find expression in Leviticus are very contemporary, such as the corrosiveness of hatred and the need to move on when bad things happen so that we’re not consumed with bitterness.

Jesus takes what is already a challenging set of ideas and adds a further twist. In his own commentary - this time a commentary on Leviticus commenting on the Ten Commandments - he says that not only should we follow Leviticus by repudiating revenge but we should also turn and offer our assailant the other cheek after he has slapped us on the right cheek. When we’re forced to go one mile, we should volunteer to go two. And so on. Not only should we let the poor glean in our fields, not only should we make generous donations to charity, but also we should give to anyone who asks. Gone is the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Jesus demands total open-handedness. Not only should we love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves but also we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. If the teaching in this part of Leviticus seemed almost too idealistic to be achievable, even by the nicest of guys, Jesus’ commentary on it seems almost completely unattainable. He asks not only for saintly behaviour. He asks for behaviour which is on a par with God’s boundless goodness.

Is Jesus exaggerating once more, for the sake of emphasis? Well, I certainly hope he is. But actually, what I think he’s doing is reminding us that we can never take the moral high ground against other people unless we ourselves are already perfect. And until that day comes, all of us, from the most upright and upstanding citizens to the most abject and deviant ones, stand under the judgment of God and are equally dependent on God’s mercy and goodness. The sun rises, and the rain falls, on good and bad, innocent and wicked, alike.

Part of the role of the preacher is to try to unpack difficult passages like these ones and to help everyone to think about how to interpret them for today. Preaching can sometimes be challenging, or thought provoking, or we may find ourselves disagreeing with the preacher and coming to different conclusions. We know that Jesus' teaching evoked all of these responses. The scribes and pharisees sometimes disagreed with him, the disciples sometimes didn't understand him and the people sometimes enjoyed his sermons but sometimes rejected his message; on one occasion they even tried to throw him over a cliff!

Worship leaders have a very different role because, as well as challenging us, worship is also supposed to comfort and inspire us. It gives us an opportunity to approach God together and praise him, share our concerns with him, seek forgiveness and reassurance, and find the resources we need to cope with our problems and live out our vocation. The preacher might touch on these issues, but they are the bread and butter, the meat and potatoes, of the worship leader's role.

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