Sermon preached on the twentieth Sunday after Trinity (21 October 2012) by The Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dean
The Very Reverend Dr David Ison looks at the meaning of the Sabbath, Pharisees and how complex issues can’t be
resolved by simply quoting individual texts.
Matthew 12: 1-21
I was also preaching at Evensong last week. In preparing for that sermon, I included some comments about conflict: not realising that, with the interruption of the service by some protesters, conflict was going to be acted out before us.
I'm hopeful that the same won't be true this week. But there's certainly a story of conflict in our New Testament reading from Matthew's gospel: the group called the Pharisees attack Jesus twice for breaking the law of the Sabbath and when he rebuffed them they went away to conspire against him to destroy him.
This seems a rather extreme over-reaction to some arcane stuff about details of religious law and observance. We who've lost in our society the religious importance of having a day of rest, and who haven't encountered real Sunday closing and social disapproval of breaking the Sabbath principle, won't understand what it was that the Pharisees got bothered about, and what we can learn from this passage.
So what's going on here? Well, you have to understand a bit more about the Pharisees. They weren't a bunch of joyless hypocrites – far from it.
They were ordinary people who wanted passionately to worship God with all of their lives. They didn't agree with the high priests who said that only priests could be properly religious; the Pharisees wanted everyone to have the opportunity to do what was right and to keep God's law.
That meant that the Pharisees had to do a lot of interpretation of the Law as found in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew and Christian bibles. They were concerned about how people could keep the Sabbath because they knew that the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy was the third of the original ten commandments. It came after the commands to worship God alone and to not take God's name in vain.
Keeping the Sabbath was – and still is –a vital expression of worship for the Jewish people. In the same way that a Christian church building like this makes a statement about God having a real place in the world, so keeping the Sabbath says that God is really present in our lives and affects the way we use our time, as our daily prayers will do.
Moreover, the Pharisees also knew that the people of Israel had, individually and corporately, been under God's judgement for not keeping the Sabbath and that the Sabbath was a key marker of Jewish identity in a world which was always threatening to overwhelm Jewish worship through assimilation to Greek and other cultures.
So the Pharisees debated and made rules about how to keep the Sabbath in the midst of everyday life. Was lighting a fire on the Sabbath an act of work? Was it work to feed your animals or yourselves? Could you go and visit your parents, or give alms to those in need? These were vital religious questions, sometimes hotly debated, because for the Pharisees they were about whether or not you were worshipping God truly.
And in our New Testament reading, Jesus comes along and calls their whole enterprise into question. His disciples are hungry and pick some grain on the Sabbath They are harvesting food and therefore are working, contravening the Pharisees' view of Sabbath law. Jesus then goes to a service of worship and cures a sick man – again, something defined as an act of work, and so forbidden.
But Jesus points out in both cases that the Sabbath law was given as an aid to people and their worship, not so that God's compassion to the hungry or the sick could be denied: and he points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who allow animals in need to find help, but not human beings.
The Pharisees wanted to destroy Jesus, because in their view he was acting against true worship; he was promoting a lax approach to the Law which, if everyone did it, would lead to God's judgement on Israel – so they thought it better to get rid of him than for all to come under what they believed would be God's judgement.
They hadn't got the point that Jesus was saying to them that, in their concern for keeping the details of the Law, they'd lost sight of the purpose of the Law, and the compassion of God who gave it.
So what does this say to us? Well, remember that the Pharisees are in the Gospels, not so that we have someone that we can feel superior to, but so that we can see ourselves reflected in them – they show us what as religious people we can become. We can be Pharisees too. We can define the Christian gospel in such a way as to deny the love of God which our gospel proclaims. We may have loosened up on the principles of a Sabbath – and not always helpfully either: but what else might we be missing in terms of how we express our faith?
I'm going to read you a set of statements about a particular practice.
See if you can guess what practice it is that these authorities are referring to.
Greek philosopher Aristotle said that to live by it is exceedingly unnatural; Roman writer Cato said of this that it was the same as murder; the prophet Ezekiel said a sinful person who does this should not be allowed to live, but must face God’s judgement; Jesus said his disciples should not do it; the Quran says that those who do this should expect a war from God and his messenger; the poet Dante put those who did this in the inner part of the 7th circle of hell; the Buddha said that it was dishonest and no one should do it; the Reformer Martin Luther said that all who did it were thieves who should be hung; Sir Josiah Stamp an early 20th century government advisor said that those who do it were conceived in iniquity and born in sin. What is it?
You may think it was something about sex, the traditional preoccupation of the Church. But in fact it is of course usury, the charging of interest on money – the practice which we now take for granted and which is the basis of so much of our economic world. A practice which can help people to develop economically – or can imprison people in debt whether in this country or overseas.
I don't want to pursue the question of debt today – it deserves much more time and care. But I want simply to make the point that we, like the Pharisees, have blind spots, prejudices and assumptions with regard to how our faith applies to all sorts of things – the environment, war, nuclear weapons and power, political policies and spending priorities, sexuality and recreation included.
And Jesus inevitably confronts us, as he did the Pharisees, with where our assumptions conflict with the requirements of God’s love – where we walk away or conspire against what Jesus said and did, rather than have our lives radically converted by what he says.
Complex issues can’t be resolved by simply quoting individual texts from the bible as Pharisees did and do. And strongly held convictions may also be wrong. The question is what God calls us to do in loving him and our neighbour, now, here, today.
"Jesus said: if you had known what God meant when it says 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice', then you would not have condemned the innocent. The man’s withered hand was restored; and the Pharisees went out and conspired together against him in order to destroy him."