(08-07-06) The Trouble with Society These Days... - Matthew 5.20-24
Anger and wrath, these also are abominations, yet a sinner holds on to them. 28:1The vengeful will face the Lord’s vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. 2Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. 3Does anyone harbour anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? 4If someone has no mercy towards another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? 5If a mere mortal harbours wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins? 6Remember the end of your life, and set enmity aside; remember corruption and death, and be true to the commandments. 7Remember the commandments, and do not be angry with your neighbour; remember the covenant of the Most High, and overlook faults.
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labour and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
As I set off for Cardiff to receive the Archbishop’s Charge the Wednesday before last, I was tuned in to Radio 4 LW, waiting for the cricket to come on. Being a little previous, I managed to hear my first ever bit of ‘Woman’s Hour’. I must confess to not being a regular listener… The topic being discussed became immediately obvious – “the problem with the world these days is…” “y problem gyda’r byd y dyddiau yma yw…” Various things were being blamed; TV, computers, mobile phones (well, technology generally, if I’m honest), the government, schools, parents… I’m sure we could finish the list quite easily. But soon after I had tuned it, it seems it was the Church’s turn for a bit of a bashing. “If only the Church taught the Ten Commandments these days,” complained the contributor, “then people would have a sense of right and wrong.”
She did, of course, have a point. Previous generations (although I’m sure they weren’t perfect and had issues of their own to deal with) did, at least, have a moral code upon which to base decisions about how to act, and the church was at the centre of that. Whether or not everyone referred to it is a different matter, and whether or not the right decisions were made in the end is also a different matter. It was there then, it isn’t there anywhere near as much now. People, by which I mean the majority of the British population, don’t know their Bibles and, it would seem, many don’t know how to act and behave in a way that is beneficial to everyone. Qualities such as honesty, modesty, hard work and respect, amongst others, are in short supply these days, and you only have to step out of your front door to see examples. However, my guess would be that the distance between the ‘majority’ and the ‘Church’ is too great to be bridged by simply shouting the Ten Commandments from our rooftops.
But I don’t want our reflection on today’s readings to take the form of a rant against ‘society’ (although the horse may already have bolted on that one!). Because I believe that what we have heard in our apocryphal reading, Paul’s epistle and from Jesus directly in the Gospel reading is a call to a far more radically challenging and counter-cultural lifestyle that that of the Ten Commandments. I am not a murderer. I hope you find that relief! Nor am I an adulterer, and nor do I swear oaths hastily as Jesus goes on to consider in the verses that follow. But I do get angry, and more often than not I get angry with things that aren’t worth getting angry about. And Jesus’ words remind us that as His followers, He calls us to lives free from anger. Mae Iesu yn ein galw ni i fyw bywydau heb dicter. That’s a high calling indeed. A challenging benchmark, for sure. I know that I don’t live up to it, but I know that I am called to. And as I read Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesian church, I know that God, in His perfect holiness, longs for me to allow Him to change, mould and shape me further towards the likeness of His Son.
The Ten Commandments were the minimum requirements, the starting point on the road to perfection that God laid before His children. Of course, we ignore and forget them at our peril, but we also limit our call to holiness if we stop there with some legalistic view of them as being God’s moral compass. In fact, Jesus’ teaching on the Law quite clearly stretches us even further than what we have read this morning. We are called to love our neighbour, even to pray for those who persecute and hate us. That is a radical, revolutionary and world-changing kind of love. That is a calling to a lifestyle which has the potential to turn around the society of which we so easily despair.
His attitude to the outcast, the poor, the ill, the unclean, the sinners is well known and much admired. But to consider it as a model for us to follow is perhaps even more challenging than His words in our reading. Gweddiwn bod yr Ysbryd Glan yn ehangu ein golwg o’r bywyd sanctaidd yr ydym wedi cael ein galw i fyw. May God’s Holy Spirit expand our vision of the holiness of life to which we are called, and find us willing to be vessels into which He can pour His own holiness.