Readings : Leviticus 19: 1,2 and 9-18; Matthew 5: 38-48
Just this week, the old chestnut of ‘should the church get involved with politics?’ has reared its head. 43 Christian leaders, including 27 Anglican bishops, signed a letter urging David Cameron to ensure people get enough to eat. This did include some URC moderators and some Methodist Chairs of District – although some of the press reports focused rather on the bishops.
Alongside the questions the letter raises about food justice and food banks and benefit cuts, some reporters wanted to ask ‘should the church be saying anything about political issues at all?’. My answer to that would be that for Christians not to speak out about the lives of people who are suffering would be to try to break the link between what we believe and what we do, and it seems to me that Jesus was very concerned that we should not allow that break to happen. Instead Jesus wants us to ask ourselves ‘how does what I believe about God’s love and God’s rule affect how I should live and treat others?’. Today’s readings are an example of that link between believing and doing.
First we heard from the book of Leviticus, in what we sometimes call the Old Testament. The danger with the term ‘Old’ Testament is that we might think these are the old laws, the outdated ones, the superceded ones – and indeed there are laws in Leviticus about what to eat and what to wear that we no longer consider relevant to us as Christians.
But we shouldn’t for a moment think that following Jesus means we don’t need any laws any more – and maybe that’s the sort of thinking that Jesus has in mind when we says to those who are following him ‘do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets – I have not come not to abolish but to fulfill’.
If we look at the laws we heard today from Leviticus, I don’t think there are any there we would want to say should not apply to us as Christians : Leave a harvest for the poor, do not steal, lie, swear falsely, or exploit others. Judge justly, do not slander, and do not hate, but love others.
There is a concern for doing the right thing, living the right way, and caring especially for the poor, which is shot right through so many of the laws of the Hebrew scriptures.
If some people think that following Jesus is an alternative to following the law, Jesus says do not follow the law less, but follow it more closely – exceed what you think is the letter of the law – aim for perfection.
The problem with rules and regulations is that there are different ways of ‘following’ them, aren’t there. Think of someone who is operating a ‘work to rule’ at work, for example. The attitude becomes ‘you can only make me do what it absolutely states in my contract of work I must do and no more’. The rules become the limit of what is required of that person, rather than the foundation for the work they do, which may well include things which aren’t actually written down anywhere at all. The danger of this attitude to rules or laws is that it can lead to a grudging acceptance of how to behave.
We know that Jesus faced this sort of attitude from people of his time, because we have the example of the rich young ruler who says to Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (Mark ch 10). When Jesus says ‘you know the commandments..’ the young man says ‘I’ve kept all those’. But when Jesus says ‘then give everything you have to the poor’ he goes away saddened, because he can’t bear to do that. He didn’t realize that the law to care for the poor might actually extend to giving up his own wealth. He thought there was a limit to the law.
But here, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear ‘you must be perfect, as God is perfect’. Our following of God’s way cannot have a limit, any more than God’s love has a limit.
Jesus gives examples of what he expects:
‘Do not resist an evildoer.. if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.. if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.. if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’
And if this level of perfection starts to sound impossible, we need to remember that Jesus did not just say these things but he did them.
Turning away from violence, allowing evil to take its course, accepting physical beating, being stripped of his clothes, and submitting himself to crucifixion, whilst also praying for his enemies. Jesus was prepared to do what he believes, to live out his own teaching, to show us how this perfect law actually works in real life.
We will not, of course, face Roman crucifixion, but Jesus’ teaching about how we live this law of love without limits is still relevant for us.
We sometimes use the phrase ‘a slap in the face’ to mean something more than a physical blow. When we face that sort of treatment, Jesus says accept it with love and forgiveness.
When we are faced with the temptation to be less than honest, whether it’s getting too much change in a shop, or hovering over our tax returns, Jesus says be honest in all your dealings.
When our press or our politicians tell us that we shouldn’t get involved, Jesus says love your neighbour, follow the law - and the law of Leviticus says ‘feed the hungry’.
And how can we, imperfect as we are, show this limitless love of the law of Jesus?
As we follow Jesus we are walking a way of perfection – not because we are perfect, but because we know that following Jesus is the way to completeness. It is the way that allows the limitless love of God to flow into us and through us – giving us the strength we need to be more complete followers of Jesus, people who are more loving and forgiving and.. well, perfect.
When, through God’s grace, we are enabled to follow Jesus more closely, we show other people the limitless love of God in action – we are signs of God’s kingdom of love, joy, peace and grace.
So may we live to God’s glory, inspired by God’s Spirit to walk Christ’s way. Amen.