Prayers of the People, the Baptist book of prayers that I edited with Karen Smith to mark the retirement of John Weaver has been re-printed. The first edition sold out - this second edition has some corrections and additions, but is broadly the same as the first one. Get 'em while they're hot!
5:38-48 "You have heard that it was said, 'An
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone
strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you
and take your coat, give your cloak as well;
41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the
second mile. 42 Give to
everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from
you. 43 ¶ "You have
heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your
enemy.' 44 But I say to you,
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of
your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,
and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love
you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your
brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the
Gentiles do the same? 48 Be
perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
19:1-2 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2 Speak to all the congregation of
the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your
God am holy.
19:9-18 When you reap the harvest of your land, you
shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your
harvest. 10 You shall not
strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you
shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. 11 ¶ You shall not steal; you
shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12 And you shall not swear falsely
by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD. 13 ¶ You shall not defraud
your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the
wages of a laborer until morning. 14
You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you
shall fear your God: I am the LORD. 15 ¶
You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor
or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. 16 You shall not go around as a
slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your
neighbor: I am the LORD. 17 ¶
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your
neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any
of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
you ever find yourself having those thoughts
which begin with the phrase,
'If I ruled the
such a seductive thought, isn't it?
I ruled the world, things would be different...
I ruled the world, things would be better...
I ruled the world, I'd solve this pressing problem,
resolve that nagging issue,
and sort out the other
so it stopped causing such trouble.
got a list, as I'm sure you can imagine, and it grows daily.
From the unequal distribution of
to the fact that the doors in public
toilets open the wrong way,
I'm sure it would all be
so much better, so much more efficient,
if I was running the
yet, I tell myself, others have tried this before, and they've always failed.
I ruled the world' is the thought behind every bloody revolution,
the idea behind every regime change,
the drive behind every
the motivation behind every political ideology, every party manifesto,
every general election, every
of course, it's true.
Sometimes I could do it better than
the revolution is necessary, a good thing, even.
The deposing of dictators, the
overthrow of oppressive regimes,
the rise of democracy, and the
growth in respect for human rights
all these are, broadly speaking, changes for the better.
was the quandary facing Dietrich Bonhoeffer
when he, the pacifist German pastor,
found himself with the opportunity
to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler.
his conclusion, that it was better to do evil than to allow evil to continue,
cost him his life.
is also the quandary, the dilemma,
which lies behind our passage this
morning from the sermon on the mount.
was preaching to a people
whose religion required of them a
strict adherence to the Jewish law,
as interpreted and taught to them by
the scribes and the Pharisees.
I know the Scribes and the Pharisees get a lot of negative press,
but just for a minute I'd like us to
try and see things from their point of view.
had a country to run, and not a easy country at the best of times.
The Roman occupation required
one wrong move and all
hell would break loose.
The people were anxious, taxed to
within an inch of poverty,
and volatile to the
point of revolution.
only thing keeping it all in check was the law,
which was, by and large, obeyed.
the law of Rome, but the law of Moses.
The Jewish religious leaders had
obtained a special dispensation from the emperor
that the traditional
Jewish law could still function within the land of Israel,
so long as it didn't harm the
interests of the empire
or foment rebellion amongst the
was a situation not dissimilar to the contemporary debate
around the concessions that may be
granted in the British legal system
to accommodate certain
principles of Islamic law.
It's a fine line, and fraught with
tension, and it always has been.
the Jewish people lived, by and large, according to the Mosaic law,
and the Scribes and the Pharisees
needed to keep it that way,
because the alternative didn't bear
law of Moses had as it's basis the Ten Commandments,
but these we're overlaid with a vast
quantity of additional legal material
to expand and clarify
the key principles of the commandments.
Some of these were found in the
books of the Hebrew Bible,
what we would call the
and some were found in the vast
array of other literature
that the Jewish
religious leaders had generated over the centuries.
Old Testament reading this morning, from the book of Leviticus,
is an example of just such material,
it takes the command to love your neighbour
and expands it to include care for
the poor and the vulnerable,
setting forth a kind of Jewish
equivalent of the welfare state.
notable feature of the law of Moses,
and this was something that the
Romans recognised and respected,
was that it was only ever intended
to apply to the Jewish people.
wasn't given as a universal law-code,
applicable and enforceable across
the range of human societies.
wasn't some predecessor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
the Law of Moses was an outworking of the call of God
on the people of Israel to be the
people of God.
Jewish law was exactly what it claimed to be
- the law for the Jews.
did not seek to impose it on the gentile nations,
and only required obedience to it
from those people
who were inside the
covenant that God had established
with the nation of
Israel, the descendants of Abraham.
and here's an important point,
the Jewish law was given to the
to be obeyed by them as
the covenant people of God,
so that they might function as a
light to the nations,
as a blessing to the
wasn't given to the Jews for their own benefit,
so that they could be holy whilst
other nations could go to hell.
it was given for the benefit of all,
to show the true way of being human
that was available through
entering into a covenant relationship
with the living God.
quandary that Jesus faced,
in the first century world of Roman
that the law of Moses had become something
that it was never intended to be.
had become a tool of nationalist ideology,
a barrier between Jews and Gentiles
which was insurmountable,
a source of pride, and a motivation
the command to love one's neighbour from Deuteronomy,
had become a couplet of judgment:
love your neighbour -
and hate your enemy!
Love your fellow Jew, and hate your
lex talionis, the injunction that the
for maliciously taking
out a person's eye or tooth
should be no more severe
than inflicting the same
injury back on the perpetrator,
ceased to be a guard against overkill,
and had instead become a mechanism
compensation claims for injuries caused
that would make a
letter of the law still stood,
but it's spirit had been twisted.
and justice had given way
to oppressive and exploitative
for the vulnerable had given way
to exclusion of the marginalised and
hatred of the other.
had given way to self righteousness.
Jesus said, love your enemy,
pray for those who persecute you,
forgive the person who
has wronged you,
give to the
person who has asked for help.
in saying this, he wasn't simply articulating
some soft sixties-liberalism woolly-headed
he was challenging the very basis
on which his society's social and legal
systems were predicated.
I have to say that I can see why
the scribes and the Pharisees got so
angry with him.
if you take what Jesus is advocating seriously,
you have a recipe for absolute
anarchy on your hands.
philosophy of Jesus, if taken as an articulation of a legal framework,
is totally unworkable.
wicked will go unpunished,
the wealthy will soon become
the vulnerable will be
exploited at every turn.
couldn't run a coffee morning along these lines,
let alone a city, a country, an
empire, or even a church.
what did Jesus think he was doing?
Did he have an agenda for anarchy?
he simply inculcating tactics designed to destabilise
the carefully negotiated status quo?
partly, I think the answer to that is yes,
but not without cause.
is very clear in the sermon,
that he has not come to overthrow
he says that he has come to fulfil the law,
to bring it to perfection,
to bring it to
intent in the provocative and challenging words of the sermon
is to take the law back to its
from being a mechanism for oppression and exclusion,
a tool of the status quo alliance
to rediscover it as the God-given challenge
to the forces and powers at work
among the nations
that divide, distort,
and demean humanity.
has a vision of the law
as the out working of the love of
God for the whole of creation,
not just one part of it,
not just one
just one nation under God.
so he challenges those
who had sought to restrict the role
of Israel as a light to the nations
in the cause of national interest
challenges the status quo
that allows the people of God and
the empire to co-exist,
he challenges especially those who have used the law of Moses
to keep the people subjugated,
impoverished, and oppressed,
in order to preserve and
protect the national interest.
time for a change, it’s time for a revolution.
It’s time to start doing it
this is not Jesus’ moment of revolutionary epiphany,
this is not the moment when he
starts to think ‘If I ruled the world…’
already faced that temptation,
when Satan offered him all the
empires of the world as a gift,
and Jesus turned down earthly power
as the solution to humanity’s plight.
will not be saved by changing the leadership,
they won’t be saved by someone else
ruling the world.
the path to salvation, according to Jesus,
lies in a change of heart, in a
change of attitude, in a change of behaviour,
that starts at the grassroots, with
the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalised.
revolution of Jesus is not one where society is transformed from the top down,
it’s one where the world is
transformed from the bottom up.
Jesus says to the Jewish peasant,
that if a soldier offers the the
insult of a back-handed blow to their right cheek,
they should turn and look him in the
and then invite him to
hit them again,
but this time on their
other cheek as an equal.
says to the powerless person who is being fleeced for their fleece
by someone who holds all
that they should respond by giving
their creditor all their clothes,
leaving the courthouse
thereby making the creditor
responsible for the shame of their nakedness,
and denying them any
coverup for their oppressive actions.
says to the person conscripted by a Roman soldier
to carry his pack for
that they should walk on for a
shaming the power of the
him to break the Roman law
allowed him to require one mile of assistance.
advocates a policy of what is sometimes called
Revolutionary Subordination, or
or nonviolent resistance.
challenges those whom the law has made powerless
to engage their prophetic
imagination in such a way
as to generate
where violence and
oppression are disarmed by creativity.
find myself drawn at this point
to the recent protest activities of
the Russian punk band Pussy Riot,
have sought through provocative but peaceful artistic expression,
to challenge the oppressive and
a dominant ideology that they have identified
homophobic, and violent.
far they have been arrested and imprisoned,
and just this week manhandled and
for making a video in front of the
Winter Olympics flag
in protest at the recent legislation
I think they point us to something important.
This kind of nonviolent provocative
is never without cost if
it is to be effective.
Jesus himself paid the ultimate
for the path he embarked
and he invites those who follow him
to take up their own
he also invites all who will respond
to enter into a life lived not in
fear of death,
but in the power of resurrection.
worst the law can do is take your life,
and Jesus promises new life
to those who join him in his
challenge to the powers that distort creation.
fulfilment of the law that Jesus speaks of
isn’t a vision for an alternative
because it turns out that Jesus
isn’t interested in national boundaries.
you want a framework for a national legal system, look elsewhere.
will it work as a party manifesto,
because it seems Jesus isn’t
interested in party political boundaries.
you want a political ideology, look elsewhere.
will it work as a rule
for any kind of structured,
boundaried, disciplined community,
Jesus is interested in crossing boundaries,
loving the excluded,
in embracing the marginalised.
rule of law that is based on national identity
will find itself radically
the poor, the disadvantaged, and the marginalised
hear the invitation to see themselves
world of the twenty-first century
has much in common with the world of
too have our power blocks, our empires, our nationalistic ideologies.
We too have our legal systems, our
enforcers of the law,
and some are better than others,
make no mistake about it.
many ways, the foundation of Jewish ethics as we heard it in Leviticus,
that ‘you shall love your neighbour
as yourself’ (19.18)
remains the foundation
for Western society.
nationalism to national interest,
from ethnic identity to strategic
relationships to entente cordiale,
still structure society in much the same way
as that which Jesus encountered in
the first century.
love our neighbours, and we hate our enemies.
Jesus invites us, as he invited the scribes and the Pharisees,
to realise that national identity
to the God of the whole
is not an Englishman, or a Welshman, or a Scot, or an American,
or indeed the property of any group
that might lay claim to him.
is not a Baptist, or an Anglican, or a Moslem, or a Jew.
He is not even a ‘he’, come to think
God is, is love,
and he calls the people of God to
for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole world.
for example, Jesus’ rather troubling injunction to,
to everyone who begs from you,
not to refuse anyone who wants to borrow
from you (5.42).
he intend all his followers
to give everything away whenever
they are asked?
so, we’re not very good at it, are we?
I mean, as a church we do indeed
give, and give generously, to those who ask,
but we have limits, and we
and policies, and programmes…
And rightly so, I might add!
what was Jesus getting at, then?
think he has in mind the social welfare system outlined in Leviticus,
that we heard about in our second
system, of leaving a portion of the harvest for the poor to gather,
and of paying people on time, and of
being a good employer,
intended to build into the Jewish society
a basic orientation to the poor and
was a recognition that it was the responsibility of the haves,
to provide care for the have-nots,
and to use their wealth in
by Jesus’ time, the scribes and the Pharisees
had taken the principle of
structural care for the poor,
enshrined in the Jewish law,
made it into a legalistic framework
where benefits to the poor were only
to an ever-tightening framework of entitlement.
me that this is a situation not dissimilar
to our own contemporary reduction of
the benefits system.
Scribes and the Pharisees proclaimed their commitment to upholding
a system which cared for the
vulnerable and the poor,
which actually, under their leadership,
created poverty among an ever-widening
underclass of the needy.
a society in legalistic retreat
from its ideological underpinning of
compassion for the poor,
whether in the first or
the twenty-first century,
Jesus utters his challenge to give
to all who beg,
to lend to all who request it.
seems to me that our world of cuts to crisis loans,
our world of reduced benefits for
and diminished social care for the disadvantaged
do well to hear the provocative and politicised challenge of Jesus.
it’s not just about calling the authorities to account:
we who live as the covenant people
of God in our time
are still called to be a light to
are called to be those who embody the transformation we believe in,
and to live it from the bottom of
society to the top.
unless it is true for us,
it will not be true for others.
one level, this will involve strategic choices
about the way we use our own wealth,
both individually and as a church.
it also calls us to consider the deeper divisions and rifts
that lie within our own souls.
Richard Rohr puts it:
Until there is
love for enemies, there is no real transformation,
because the enemy always carries the
dark side of your own soul.
people who threaten us
carry our own faults in a different
The people who
really turn you off
are very much like you.
not just a suggestion;
you’ve got to love your enemy to
rightly puts it in the imperative form: Do it!
goes on to observe that often,
what we don’t
like about ourselves is our inner enemy,
in a certain sense.
[So] we must
learn to love and forgive that enemy, too.
takes great humility and great compassion,
The Book of Revelation: Currents in British Research on the Apocalypse
The Plainly Revealed Word of God?
Questions of Identity
Wisdom, Science and the Scriptures
Prayers of the People
The Way the World Ends?
Bible and Justice
Delivering the Word
Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture
The story of Women in Ministry in the Baptist Union of Great Britain
The Book of Revelation - Bible Society
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