Sunday, 9 February 2014

Breaking the law

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
9 February 2014, 11.00am

Matthew 5:13-20  "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 
14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. 
17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  19 Therefore, 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 in the kingdom of heaven.  20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Isaiah 58:1-10  Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.  2 Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.  3 "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.  5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  6 Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.  9 Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,  10 if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 

As I was preparing for today’s sermon earlier this week,
            I found myself following intently the trial of five peace activists
who were arrested in September
            while blocking an entrance to the DSEI arms fair
            at the Excel centre in East London.

One of the defendants is well known to us here at Bloomsbury,
            and regularly worships with us in our evening congregation.
In fact, he spoke to us very movingly just last week
            about the situation that was leading him
            to Stratford Magistrates Court the following morning.

Now, I’m not going to rehearse the specifics of their case,
            and the details of their successful defence
            are well documented online if you’re interested.[1]

But it did make me think, and think quite carefully,
            about whether it is ever right for a Christian to break the law.
Is it ever justifiable, from a Christian point of view,
            to take a course of action that puts one outside the law of the land?

At one level, there is part of me that wants to say a firm ‘no’ to this question;
            after all, we live in a free and fair democracy,
and there are mechanisms for legally registering one’s protest;
            whether it be through peaceful demonstration,
            or by exercising one’s right at the ballot box.

And, after all, didn’t Paul say clearly to the church that met in Rome,
            - hardly a city that modelled the western values
                        of freedom of speech and action! -
that even they should ‘be subject to the governing authorities’
            because ‘there is no authority except from God,
                        and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.’ (Rom 13.1)

However, against this I find myself having to set the lived example
            of many great Christians
who have found themselves imprisoned and worse
            for their commitment to the cause of the Gospel of Christ.

Paul himself faced beatings and incarceration
            for his faithful and uncompromising witness to Christ,
            as he refused to be silenced by the forces of the empire.

And Jesus clearly seems to expect his followers
            to face persecution and trial
            if they take seriously the path that he calls them to.

We can see this clearly in Matthew’s gospel,
            just a few chapters later than this morning’s passage,
where he warns his disciples that they will be handed over
            to the councils and synagogues and flogged;
telling them that when they face trial – ‘when’, and not ‘if’ -
            they do not need to worry about how they are to speak or what they are to say;
                        for what they are to say will be given to them at that time.
Jesus even promises them that when they have to defend themselves in court,
            ‘it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.’
                        (Matt 10.19-20)

Encouraging words I’m sure, if you happen to find yourself at the magistrates court,
            up on a charge of disrupting the powers of violence, torture and death.

And in the beatitudes, as we saw last week,
            Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven
            to those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. (Matt 5.10)

So, should Christians engage in activity
            that places them outside of the law?

We’ll come back to that question shortly…

But first I want us to spend a few minutes
            with today’s passage from Matthew chapter 5.
And I’d like us to focus particularly on verses 17 and 20.
            Let’s hear them again now.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;
            I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,
            you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The key here, it seems to me,
            is the issue of righteousness,
            and the relationship between righteousness and the law.

After all, in the beatitude, the kingdom of heaven belongs to those
            who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.
And it starts to look as if it’s an unswerving commitment to righteousness
            that might lead one to a position of conflict
                        with the powers that be.

This was certainly the case in the life of Jesus,
            as he increasingly found himself, through his ministry,
                        coming into conflict with those who held power in Israel.

In today’s passage, taken from the opening of the sermon on the mount,
            we see the beginnings of Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders
            that would eventually culminate in his execution as a criminal.
And it all hinges on this concept of righteousness:
            Jesus tells his followers that their righteousness
                        must exceed that of the scribes and the Pharisees.

Which is, on the surface, a very strange thing to say.

If you had asked someone at the time of Jesus,
            to list the most-righteous people that they could think of,
it’s a fair bet that somewhere near the top of the list
            would have been the scribes and the Pharisees.
You see, righteousness was their thing, it was their obsession.
            It was what they were known for.
And the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees
            was a righteousness built on their passionate commitment
            to observing the letter of the law.
Through detailed scholarship
            they had developed a way of living
            where not one jot or tittle,
                        not one letter, or stroke of a letter of the law was ignored,
and where every command, from the greatest to the least,
            was observed rigorously and with care.

So, when Jesus suggested to his followers that entry into the kingdom of heaven
            was dependent on being more righteous than the scribes and the Pharisees
            he was, on the surface at least, setting an impossible target to aim for.

But it all comes down to what is meant by righteousness.

For the scribes and the Pharisees,
            righteousness meant a strict adherence to the letter of the law.
For Jesus, it seems that this is not enough,
            and that there is a deeper understanding of righteousness
            which he wants his followers to discover and live by.

We’ve already met Matthew’s obsession (for want of a better phrase)
            with presenting the significance of the life of Jesus
                        as being in ‘fulfilment’ of scripture.
In the sermon on the mount, he makes this theme even more clear,
            by presenting Jesus as a new Moses.
Just as Moses went up the mountain to receive the law from God,
            which he then mediated to the people of God,
so Jesus ascends the mount,
            and offers the definitive interpretation of the law.
It even begins, as we heard last week,
            with a sequence of short statements
                        that provide a loose parallel to the ten commandments.
In our passage today, the presentation of Jesus as the new Moses is even more clear,
            as he offers a new interpretation on the relationship
            between righteousness and the law.

The righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees
            was a righteousness that led to exclusion;
And they maintained their righteous state
            by ensuring that those who would contaminate or compromise their holiness
            were excluded from the community.
They used the law, which for them was the Law of Moses,
            based on the ten commandments,
to mark out the boundary around their community,
            and if you kept the law, you were in,
            but if you didn’t keep the law, you were out.

The greater righteousness of Jesus, however,
            is a righteousness that includes those at the margins, rather than excluding them.
It is a righteousness based not just on the law,
            but also on the prophets.
Because, for Jesus, the law of Moses could only be understood
            as part of a larger picture,
namely the fulfillment of the entire Torah,
            understood in its broader sense to include the prophets,
            and not just the books of Moses.

There is a strong voice that echoes through the prophetic writings of Israel
            which bears witness to the conviction that religious observance is not enough,
                        however carefully it may be done.
Prophets such as Isaiah,
            who we heard from in our second reading,
shouted to anyone who would listen
            that true righteousness was to be found
                        not in ascetic and rigorous religious practices such as fasting,
            but through paying workers a fair wage, (Isa 58.3)
                        through loosing the bonds of injustice,
            through liberation to those in chains,
                        through feeding the hungry,
            through providing houses for the homeless,
                        and clothing for the naked.

And it’s this greater righteousness that Jesus calls his followers to,
            it’s a righteousness that brings the kingdom of heaven to the earth.

The perspective of the prophets such as Isaiah,
            was that this transformative righteousness
                        which includes the marginalised rather than excluding them
            was actually already inherent in the law of Moses,
                        for those who have eyes to see it.

But the scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day,
            those bastions of law-based righteousness
had become so obsessed with the letter of the law,
            that they had missed the spirit of the prophets,
and had focussed on maintaining their righteousness
            by excluding those that might contaminate it.

And it was to a generation that had been brought up
            to think that true righteousness
            was that of the scribes and the Pharisees,
that Jesus announced that the true fulfilment of the law and the prophets
            was to be found not in the teaching of the religious leaders
            but in the inclusive practices of his own ministry.

In this, Jesus went pitted himself against the exclusive practices of the ruling elite
            in the cause of the greater righteousness of the prophets.
And the scribes and the Pharisees didn’t like it one bit,
            because it challenged their power, and threatened their security.

In Jewish society of the time, upper level priests and religious leaders
            functioned as part of what is known as the ‘retainer’ class
            a segment of society that made up about 5% of the population
                        comprising people who acted as agents of the ruling elite.
The scribes and the Pharisees were Jewish officials
            who exercised religious roles,
            yet were also part of the ruling aristocracy,
                        along with other groups such as the Sadducees.[2]

In this period, Israel was an occupied nation,
            and the Roman empire’s hold over it was consolidated
                        through a series interconnected networks of power:
                                    political power, socioeconomic power,
                                    military power, and theological power;
                        each one intertwined with the others.

So Jesus’ growing conflict with the scribes and the Pharisees
            was never going to be simply a conflict over religious issues
because in his world, religion and politics were inseparable,
            and all religious discussions
            had social, political and economic dimensions to them.

The social status of the religious leaders as part of the retainer class,
            meant that they were committed to defending
            the current social order from which they benefited
            and in which they had a vested interest.
The scribes and the Pharisees had become part
                        of the power structures of the empire,
            and were bound to fulfil the role
                        of representing and defending its interests.

So Jesus found himself in conflict with these representatives of the ruling class
            precisely because they were those
            who wanted to preserve the current social structure.[3]

Jesus’ conflict with an alliance of religious leaders is central to Matthew’s plot,
            and again and again through the gospel
                        he demonstrates that Jesus is not so much in conflict
                                    with the scribes and Pharisees because they are ‘religious’
                        as because they have used their ‘religion’
                                    to enter into an alliance of power with the empire.

Jesus is in conflict with them precisely because they have not done
            what the prophets such as Isaiah would have them do:
they have not used the law
            to reach out to the marginalised, to empower the disempowered.

Rather, they have used the law to consolidate their social, economic, and political power,
            which they have then used to detrimental effect.
            They have not sought justice, mercy and faith (23.23). 
And so they resist Jesus’ claim to be the one who,
                        through his life and ministry,
            will offer God’s benefits to all of society,
                        and especially to those on the margins.

The scribes and the Pharisees have turned the wealth
            of the temple and the religious cult
            to their own advantage,
and in defending the status quo and the alliance with Rome,
            they have hindered people from knowing God’s empire – the Kingdom of Heaven
            whilst exposing God’s people to hardship and violence.[4]

And it is into this context
            that Jesus proclaims his new interpretation of the law.
It is in opposition to the ruling elite
            that Jesus claims to be the true embodiment of the law.

He is very clear: he came not to abolish, but to fulfil the law.

However, this fulfilment is not a mere tightening up of the law,
            Rather, it is a re-casting of the law around the victims,
                        a re-focussing of the law in favour of the marginalised.
According to Jesus, it is the victimised and marginalised who become the criteria
            by which the law is to be understood.
Thus the fulfilment of the law that Jesus proclaimed
            was a subversion from within
            of the understanding of the law as taught by the scribes and the Pharisees,
and it was rightly seen as subversive
            by those who regarded themselves as the guardians of the law.’[5]

The religious leaders, committed to the status quo,
            regarded Jesus as a revolutionary,
                        as one who was seeking nothing less
            than the total overthrow of the established power structures of the land.
And in many ways they were right
            but the revolution of Jesus,
was not an overturning of the law in such a way as to lead to lawlessness,
            and neither was it a revolution which simply replaced one ruling elite with another.

Rather, the revolution of Jesus,
            was one which radically re-interpreted the law
It was a revolution which transformed righteous legalism into merciful law
            it was the revolution of the law of love.

The problem with most revolutions, from the ancient to the modern,
            is that they become revolutions of inversion.[6]
Most revolutions simply result in the switching places of the main characters:
            with the good guys becoming the bad guys, and vice versa.
Revolutions of inversion may see themselves as overthrowing oppressive structures,
            but they always leave the deeper anthropological structures intact.
Even after the revolution,
            the social structures of division between good guys and bad guys remains,
            it’s just that they have changed places.

However, the revolution of Jesus isn’t a straightforward revolution of inversion.
            Rather, it is a revolution of subversion from within,
it’s a revolution which undermines the very mechanism of division
            which makes some people good guys and some people bad guys.
But its not even a simple overthrowing of the mechanism;
            it’s not a manifesto for godly anarchy.
Rather, it is a transforming of society into something else althogether:
            The revolution of Jesus is a revolution of transformation
            which is very different to a revolution of destruction.

Most "revolutions" think they are overthrowing the structures-that-be,
            and in a sense this is what they do;
but they don’t overthrow the deeper structures of division,
            where some are deemed ‘good’ or ‘righteous’,
            while some are deemed ‘bad’ and ‘unrighteous’.
Neither do revolutions solve the problem of scapegoating
            – the mechanism whereby a person or group of people
                        are expelled or executed in the interest of bring the new order into being.
Most revolutions retain the mechanism and structures of division,
            and simply invert the characters within the mechanism.

Take Marxism as a fairly un-threatening, almost dead, example.
            Marxism thinks it’s overturning the capitalist structures;
                        and it is, of course.
But it doesn’t touch the anthropological structures
            of sacrifice, scapegoating, and division.
It simply inverts the characters:
            so that the capitalists, who were the good guys in the capitalist system,
                        are now the bad guys;
            and the proletariat become the good guys.
And along the way, of course,
            some people, sometimes a lot of people, die

Marxism may be correct in its analysis
            that says the proletariat are sacrificed in the capitalist system.
But when the capitalists become those who are sacrificed in the socialist system,
            in the end, all that is achieved is inversion.

The other revolutionaries from around Jesus’ time,
            the zealots and the Maccabees and so on,
had all sought to overthrow the empire,
            but their agenda had simply been one of inversion.
They had wanted the Romans, or the Seleucids, or whoever, out of their land,
            and then they wanted themselves ruling in their place.

This was certainly how the scribes and the Pharisees
            would have interpreted Jesus’ revolutionary talk
                        – just another revolutionary bent on the overthrow of the system
                        and the installation of his own ideology in its place.
And so they said to themselves,
            ‘That way lies death and disaster,
                        we’ve seen it before.
            ‘Better to keep the compromise as it is, surely?’

But in this they misunderstood Jesus’ challenge,
            because Jesus was not seeking to overthrow the system.
He was rather seeking to subvert the injustice that had taken root in the land,
            and to join his voice definitively to the voice of the prophets
            in calling the people of God back to their vocation as a light to the world
                        and as the place where the healing of the nations begins.

And yes, sure enough, someone was going to die.
            Someone was going to be scapegoated.
But the path of sacrifice that Jesus embarked on
            wasn’t the well-trodden path of a bloody revolution of inversion.
Rather, it was the lesser known path
            of a revolution that challenged the fundamental structures
                        of division and exclusion,
            calling people to find a new and different way to be human.

The calling to be salt and light
            was as old as the covenant itself,
but this message and calling had been lost,
            obscured by the legalistic righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.
The law had ceased to function as it should,
            as the letter had come to obscure the spirit.

And so I’d like to bring us back to the question that I started with,
            that of whether it is ever right for a Christian to break the law.

Those of us who are followers of Jesus,
            are followers of a revolutionary leader.
We are followers of one who took an uncompromising stand
            against the powers of oppression in the world,
and who sought nothing less than their total transformation.

And there are times, and places,
            where our standing alongside Christ
may well place us outside the law,
            as the powers that be understand it.

But the revolution of Christ come not through the exercising of violence:
            this is no bloody revolution,
unless you count the blood of the martyrs
            whose commitment to the path of Christ-like revolution
            brought them into conflict with the powers that be
                        in ways that reflected the sacrificial death of Christ himself.

Rather, this is a revolution of subversion,
            where the law is taken back
                        from those who have made it exclusive in the name of righteousness,
it is a revolution of subversion,
            where the greater righteousness of the kingdom of heaven
                        replaces the petty power politics of the kingdoms of the earth.

And if we are to take our place alongside Christ,
            in speaking up for the marginalised,
                        and including the excluded,
            and in seeing righteousness for all and not just for some,
then we also take our place alongside Christ,
            in seeing the fulfilment of the law in him,
                        and not in the structures of the governing powers.

If there’s a choice to be made,
            and sometimes there is,
the righteousness of Christ will always trump
            the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees.
And if they’re the ones writing the law,
            then, I suggest, we know where we stand.

[1] See
[2] Carter, Matthew and Empire, p.17
[3] Carter, Matthew & Empire, p.35
[4] Carter, Matthew & Empire, p.81
[5] James AlisonThe Joy of Being Wrong, footnote 11 on p. 122
[6] See

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