9 February 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

9 February 2020

Epiphany 5 A 2020 – 9 February 2020

Isaiah 58:1-12

Matthew 5:13-21

This week we are considering a section of the sermon on the mount. We didn’t read the beginning with the Beatitudes last week because we celebrated the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. But you are all familiar with that challenging passage. Jesus has taught them in a series of very difficult statements how to be blessed or satisfied by God. Jesus says that they will be satisfied if they hunger and thirst after righteousness. Righteousness is the key idea in Matthew’s gospel and if we can understand what it means it will help us to put the whole gospel into perspective, and indeed our ideas about judgement. 

Jesus describes us, as being salt and light. Then in a seeming digression, Jesus talks about the law, and then comes today’s statement about righteousness, which can only be properly understood in the light of what has come before. But bear with me, as I explore the end first.

“For I tell you,” Jesus says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Does that sound daunting to you? Well, it should because the scribes and the Pharisees were super good law keepers and Jesus has just said that not one jot or tittle would pass from the law until all is accomplished.

So what does all this mean? Well, I think that when Jesus is talking about the “law” or Torah and the Prophets he is not referring to all the minutiae of the Levitical law, that the Pharisees and scribes had over the years extended and complexified. I am sure that keeping the rules, as the scribes and Pharisees did, is not Torah or Prophetic. What Jesus is saying, I believe, is that the heart of the law cannot be changed, and cannot be sacrificed, and that the disciples’ righteousness was going to be in fulfilling, not a million little rules, but the two great commandments  the law of love of God, and flowing from that, love of neighbour.

I read it like this because of Isaiah. 

Isaiah is speaking in God’s voice:  “Announce to my people their rebellion!” says God, and then goes on to describe their rebellious behaviour. Are they breaking the Levitical, or priestly laws- well no! They are keeping those laws, God says that, “day after day they seek God and delight to know God’s ways, AS IF they were a nation that practised righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God”. So they are seeking God and trying at one level to do the right thing but it is not righteousness according to God. They want righteous judgements, they delight to draw near to God- so what are they doing wrong? This is very confusing, isn’t it? And they are plainly confused about it themselves. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” they ask God. They think they are doing the right thing but God has a sad indictment to bring to them. 

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,

      and oppress all your workers. 

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. 

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 ?

Yes! They think so. The people think that by fasting and fulfilling all the things that the rules call them to, they are obeying and will be considered righteousness by God. But they are judged to be wanting, because their fast is marred by injustice and quarrelling. It isn’t enough to obey the letter of the law. It isn’t enough to go through the motions with regard to your own observances. It is like us saying, ‘well I am righteous because I go to church regularly, and take communion and give plenty of money to the church.’ Those are good things, just as the fasting and ritual humility were good things but they had missed the point- their fasts were not fasts of righteousness but fasts of unrighteousness. And why? Because they failed in their love of the people around them. And God tells them, quite directly what God requires:

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? 

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?

These are extremely difficult demands, these are the criteria for judgement. They are called to loose the bonds of injustice- and God says that they were treating their workers with injustice. Theirs was a fairly simple system compared to ours.  In an agrarian society where farming was the most important job and other industries, the making of things and the provision of services was visible because it happened within the community- by and large, though of course there were goods that were traded, it is possible to see injustice. Workers who were not properly paid could be seen. Workers who were treated violently could be seen. People who were yoked, which implies servitude and even slavery were able to be seen. We live in a society where much of the injustice is invisible, a world where what happens to the person who makes your clothes so cheaply occurs a long way away in China or in Bangladesh. We don’t know if they are treated fairly, do we? And what about the miners who dig the precious metals for our technology or coal out of the ground for our power? They are hard to see. What about the dairy farmers struggling to make ends meet, or the children picking coffee and cocoa beans? What about the people who sit in banks, or other corporations, in call centres and in hundreds of other jobs that keep us going? We don’t see them. Not unless we look! So how do we know who is being oppressed and who is under a literal or figurative yoke of slavery?

We only have to walk down the streets of Melbourne, however, to see the homeless and the hungry, though there are many, very many, that we can’t see that go hungry in this rich land of plenty. Our society is very different to ancient Israel and we do provide for the hungry and the homeless through our taxes, but are we sure that the help is going where it is needed? Do we look to see where every dollar that we pay out is spent and insist that some goes towards the welfare of those in need? Do we call our government to account?

This is righteousness- this is what it looks like, paying attention to the way others are treated and loving them, in both a practical and personal way, and loving also in a more general sense. This is personal but it is also something we do together. 

I often hear people say that religion and politics shouldn’t mix, but I am afraid that Isaiah, and indeed Jesus, give us no choice. And to give just one example, if we think about the way our government is treating new start beneficiaries, in our name, with our taxes, we should be appalled and horrified. Do our actions as individuals and as a nation meet God’s requirements for righteousness as Isaiah expresses them here? 

This is all about relationship- the relationship of God to God’s-self, the relationship of love between God and God’s creatures, and the relationships between those creatures. We are called to righteousness that is about the absolute law of love.

This is the criterium upon which we are judged. And if we are truly righteous, what are the consequences for our world? Well, in a most beautiful image, Isaiah says that our light will break forth like the dawn. Healing will spring up quickly, we will be protected by God back and front. When we call to God, God will answer, “you shall cry for help and God will say, Here I am.” 

Jesus put it another way, less exalted than Isaiah. Jesus said “You are the salt of the earth;… you are the light of the world.” We are to be the blessing of God for others, and in that we will be blessed ourselves. But Jesus warns us, it is easy to fail to live up to God’s call. If the salt loses its saltiness it isn’t worth anything and if the light is hidden nobody can see it. This is the real challenge- we have to be these things in our world, for others. It is exactly as Isaiah says, we are called to be righteousness for our community. This is, for many of us, an even more daunting prospect, than keeping all the rules like a Pharisee. However, the thing that makes it easier, is that we are to do it together. Jesus’ words are in the plural- we are to be the salt and the light. We are salt and light as we work together. We are salt and light as we loose the bonds of injustice. We are salt and light when we share our bread with the needy, and when we are available to our families.

We are, to quote St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, to speak God’s wisdom to the world, and that is the wisdom of love. And it is the Holy Spirit that gives us the wisdom of love, it is the Holy Spirit that enables us to see with God’s eyes, so that we see what is truly human, the reflection of God’s likeness. There are many people in our world today, sleeping on our streets, in refugee camps, and living in almost invisible poverty, who are made in God’s likeness and we must pray that the Holy Spirit will enable us to be God’s agents of love for them.

And then, when our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees of our modern age, we will shine like lamps in the Kingdom of God.

Rev. Roberta Hamilton