Sunday, 23 February 2014

If I ruled the world...

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
23rd February 2014, 11.00am

Matthew 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.

Leviticus 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.
Leviticus 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.

Do you ever find yourself having those thoughts
            which begin with the phrase,
                        'If I ruled the world...'?

It's such a seductive thought, isn't it?

If I ruled the world, things would be different...

If I ruled the world, things would be better...

If 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.

I've got a list, as I'm sure you can imagine, and it grows daily.
            From the unequal distribution of global resources,
            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 show.

And yet, I tell myself, others have tried this before, and they've always failed.

'If I ruled the world' is the thought behind every bloody revolution,
            the idea behind every regime change,
                        the drive behind every coup.
It's the motivation behind every political ideology, every party manifesto,
            every general election, every national referendum.

Sometimes, of course, it's true.
            Sometimes I could do it better than them.
Sometimes 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.

This 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.
And his conclusion, that it was better to do evil than to allow evil to continue,
            cost him his life.

It is also the quandary, the dilemma,
            which lies behind our passage this morning from the sermon on the mount.

Jesus 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.

Now, 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.

They had a country to run, and not a easy country at the best of times.
            The Roman occupation required careful management;
                        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.
The only thing keeping it all in check was the law,
            which was, by and large, obeyed.

Not 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 population.

It 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.

So 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 thinking about.

The 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 Old Testament,
            and some were found in the vast array of other literature
                        that the Jewish religious leaders had generated over the centuries.

Our Old Testament reading this morning, from the book of Leviticus,
            is an example of just such material,
as 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.

One 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.

It wasn't given as a universal law-code,
            applicable and enforceable across the range of human societies.
It wasn't some predecessor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Rather, the Law of Moses was an outworking of the call of God
            on the people of Israel to be the people of God.
The Jewish law was exactly what it claimed to be
             - the law for the Jews.
They 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.

But, and here's an important point,
            the Jewish law was given to the Jews,
                        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 Gentile nations.

It wasn't given to the Jews for their own benefit,
            so that they could be holy whilst other nations could go to hell.
Rather, 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.

The quandary that Jesus faced,
            in the first century world of Roman occupation,
was that the law of Moses had become something
            that it was never intended to be.

It had become a tool of nationalist ideology,
            a barrier between Jews and Gentiles which was insurmountable,
            a source of pride, and a motivation for judgment.

So, 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 Gentile enemy.

The lex talionis, the injunction that the punishment
                        for maliciously taking out a person's eye or tooth
            should be no more severe
                        than inflicting the same injury back on the perpetrator,
had ceased to be a guard against overkill,
            and had instead become a mechanism
                        for calculating compensation claims for injuries caused
                        that would make a contemporary ambulance-chasing
                                    compensation-lawyer blush.

The letter of the law still stood,
            but it's spirit had been twisted.
Fairness and justice had given way
            to oppressive and exploitative practice.
Care for the vulnerable had given way
            to exclusion of the marginalised and hatred of the other.
Righteousness had given way to self righteousness.

So 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.

And in saying this, he wasn't simply articulating
            some soft sixties-liberalism woolly-headed love-philosophy.
Rather, he was challenging the very basis
            on which his society's social and legal systems were predicated.

And I have to say that I can see why
            the scribes and the Pharisees got so angry with him.

I mean, if you take what Jesus is advocating seriously,
            you have a recipe for absolute anarchy on your hands.
The philosophy of Jesus, if taken as an articulation of a legal framework,
            is totally unworkable.
The wicked will go unpunished,
            the wealthy will soon become impoverished,
                        the vulnerable will be exploited at every turn.
You couldn't run a coffee morning along these lines,
            let alone a city, a country, an empire, or even a church.

So what did Jesus think he was doing?
            Did he have an agenda for anarchy?
Was he simply inculcating tactics designed to destabilise
            the carefully negotiated status quo?

Well, partly, I think the answer to that is yes,
            but not without cause.
Jesus is very clear in the sermon,
            that he has not come to overthrow the law.
Rather, he says that he has come to fulfil the law,
            to bring it to perfection,
                        to bring it to completion.

His intent in the provocative and challenging words of the sermon
            is to take the law back to its original intent,
away from being a mechanism for oppression and exclusion,
            a tool of the status quo alliance with Rome,
and to rediscover it as the God-given challenge
            to the forces and powers at work among the nations
                        that divide, distort, and demean humanity.

Jesus 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 chosen land,
                                                not just one nation under God.

And 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 and self-preservation.
He challenges the status quo
            that allows the people of God and the empire to co-exist,
and 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.

It’s time for a change, it’s time for a revolution.
            It’s time to start doing it differently.

But this is not Jesus’ moment of revolutionary epiphany,
            this is not the moment when he starts to think ‘If I ruled the world…’
He’s 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.

People will not be saved by changing the leadership,
            they won’t be saved by someone else ruling the world.

Rather, 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.

The 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.

So 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 eye,
                        and then invite him to hit them again,
                        but this time on their other cheek as an equal.

Jesus says to the powerless person who is being fleeced for their fleece
                        by someone who holds all the cards,
            that they should respond by giving their creditor all their clothes,
                        leaving the courthouse naked,
            thereby making the creditor responsible for the shame of their nakedness,
                        and denying them any coverup for their oppressive actions.

Jesus says to the person conscripted by a Roman soldier
                        to carry his pack for one mile
            that they should walk on for a further mile,
                        shaming the power of the soldier
                                    and causing him to break the Roman law
                                    that only allowed him to require one mile of assistance.

Jesus advocates a policy of what is sometimes called
            Revolutionary Subordination,[1] or Holy Mischief,[2] or nonviolent resistance.

Jesus challenges those whom the law has made powerless
            to engage their prophetic imagination in such a way
                        as to generate imaginative responses,
                        where violence and oppression are disarmed by creativity.

I find myself drawn at this point
            to the recent protest activities of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot,
who have sought through provocative but peaceful artistic expression,
            to challenge the oppressive and exclusive practices
                        of a dominant ideology that they have identified
                        as patriarchal, homophobic, and violent.
So far they have been arrested and imprisoned,
            and just this week manhandled and whipped
            for making a video in front of the Winter Olympics flag
            in protest at the recent legislation on homosexuality.

And I think they point us to something important.
            This kind of nonviolent provocative creative protest
                        is never without cost if it is to be effective.
            Jesus himself paid the ultimate price
                        for the path he embarked on,
            and he invites those who follow him
                        to take up their own cross.

But he also invites all who will respond
            to enter into a life lived not in fear of death,
            but in the power of resurrection.
The 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.

The fulfilment of the law that Jesus speaks of
            isn’t a vision for an alternative national law,
            because it turns out that Jesus isn’t interested in national boundaries.
If you want a framework for a national legal system, look elsewhere.

Neither will it work as a party manifesto,
            because it seems Jesus isn’t interested in party political boundaries.
If you want a political ideology, look elsewhere.

Neither will it work as a rule
            for any kind of structured, boundaried, disciplined community,
                        because Jesus is interested in crossing boundaries,
                                    in loving the excluded,
                                    and in embracing the marginalised.
Any rule of law that is based on national identity
            will find itself radically challenged
when the poor, the disadvantaged, and the marginalised
            hear the invitation to see themselves as equals.

The world of the twenty-first century
            has much in common with the world of Jesus.
We 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.

In 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.
From nationalism to national interest,
            from ethnic identity to strategic alliances,
                        from special relationships to entente cordiale,
we still structure society in much the same way
            as that which Jesus encountered in the first century.
We love our neighbours, and we hate our enemies.

But Jesus invites us, as he invited the scribes and the Pharisees,
            to realise that national identity means nothing
                        to the God of the whole earth.
God 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.
He is not a Baptist, or an Anglican, or a Moslem, or a Jew.
            He is not even a ‘he’, come to think of it.

What God is, is love,
            and he calls the people of God to live differently,
not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of the whole world.

Take, for example, Jesus’ rather troubling injunction to,
            give to everyone who begs from you,
and not to refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you (5.42).

Does he intend all his followers
            to give everything away whenever they are asked?
If 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 have structures,
                                    and policies, and programmes…
            And rightly so, I might add!

But what was Jesus getting at, then?

I think he has in mind the social welfare system outlined in Leviticus,
            that we heard about in our second reading.
This 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,
was intended to build into the Jewish society
            a basic orientation to the poor and the vulnerable.
It was a recognition that it was the responsibility of the haves,
            to provide care for the have-nots,
            and to use their wealth in non-exploitative ways.

But, by Jesus’ time, the scribes and the Pharisees
            had taken the principle of structural care for the poor,
                        as enshrined in the Jewish law,
and made it into a legalistic framework
            where benefits to the poor were only given
                        according to an ever-tightening framework of entitlement.

It strikes me that this is a situation not dissimilar
            to our own contemporary reduction of the benefits system.
The Scribes and the Pharisees proclaimed their commitment to upholding
            a system which cared for the vulnerable and the poor,
but which actually, under their leadership,
            created poverty among an ever-widening underclass of the needy.

To 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,
                        and to lend to all who request it.

It seems to me that our world of cuts to crisis loans,
            our world of reduced benefits for the vulnerable
            and diminished social care for the disadvantaged
could do well to hear the provocative and politicised challenge of Jesus.

But 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 the nations.
We are called to be those who embody the transformation we believe in,
            and to live it from the bottom of society to the top.

Because unless it is true for us,
            it will not be true for others.

At one level, this will involve strategic choices
            about the way we use our own wealth,
            both individually and as a church.
But it also calls us to consider the deeper divisions and rifts
            that lie within our own souls.

As 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.
Normally those people who threaten us
            carry our own faults in a different form.
The people who really turn you off
            are very much like you.
Jesus offers not just a suggestion;
            you’ve got to love your enemy to grow up.
[Rather] Jesus rightly puts it in the imperative form: Do it!

He 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.

Sometimes that takes great humility and great compassion,
            but if we learn it internally,
            we will be prepared for the outer enemies.[3]

The reason the world would not be better if I ruled it,
            is that I, like all of us, need to learn to forgive the enemy within.
And without crossing the boundaries within our souls,
            without facing the enemy we present to our own integration,
            we perpetuate the divisions within the world around us.

But, in Christ, we receive the gift of wholeness and healing,
            as we join ourselves to him in suffering, death, and new life.
And as we learn what it is to find completion in our inner world,
            we become those who bring salt and light to a hurting, divided world.

This is what it means to be the people of God,
            this is what it means to join the revolution of Jesus.

[1] J.H. Yoder
[2] Shane Claibourne
[3] Richard Rohr, Jesus' Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount, see especially pp. 129ff.

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