Evensong 5th March 2017
Living the Law
Living the Law. Lent 1 Evensong 2017
The notional setting, in time and place, for the book of Deuteronomy, is before the Jordan, as the Israelites are about to pass into the Promised Land. It is a crucial moment; they are they on the verge, of the boundary between their destination and the 40 years wandering in the desert, 40 years of liminal existence, safe from the spiritual death of enslavement in Egypt but still expecting the full life in their homeland. But their leader and mentor Moses, is leaving as he knows he will not live to see his people in the land which they are promised; he must die before they enjoy life in its fullness.
So Deuteronomy is in some ways Moses’ summing up, his last instructions, before his people are left to their own devices. Perhaps the most famous passage is that a little later than our reading this evening, when Moses presents the stark choice to his people; will they choose life or death? Life will be the obedience to God’s commandments, statutes and ordinances-in a word the Law. Life will be the enjoyment of their destiny, life in the Promised Land, and rejection will be as death, the loss of that life.
In the passage from Deuteronomy that we have just heard, Moses explains what the living the Law means. He uses imagery that we may find a bit tokenistic; in the children’s illustrated Bible which I still use, there is at this point, a picture of Fagin (it can be no one else), wearing a head shawl and a strange snuff box like object, slung like a necklace on his forehead. It is a phylactery, a little box containing the Law. Devout Jews still have small scrolls of the law inserted into their doorposts. These are, of course, only symbols of what Moses is exhorting the Israelites to do- that is live the Law. This is to live as God intends, in a proper relationship with God and thus also with one’s fellow men, and creation. Every aspect of our existence should reflect this reality and all our actions should realise God’s word or the Law.
In the Jewish tradition this has translated into the exposition and regulation of minutest detail of everyday life, sympathetically and exhaustively set out in Talmud; less exhaustively and somewhat more exclusively monastic codes have tried to do something similar for communities of monks and nuns and the Codex of Canon law of the Roman Catholic Church gets into some excruciatingly embarrassing and hilarious detail, fortunately not intended to be read in mixed company.
But these attempts at a manual for all aspects of life have not really taken off in the Christian life, as there is a stronger tradition in St Paul’s rejection of the Law, or rather his alternative Gospel of Christ’s actions- his death and resurrection superseding the Law. Christians on the whole, have thought the imitation of Christ was the way to live life to its fullest extent, rather than following rules or principles.
Their way of doing this has not, superficially, at least, been in the way that Jesus himself seems to have taught. His own moral teaching did not contradict the Law, although his actions often contravened its terms. More than the comparatively trivial contraventions, it was surely his insistence on getting behind the superficial requirements of the Law that got him into such trouble. Jesus too, like Moses, treats the Law as something to be lived, something profoundly guiding one’s deepest motivation, not merely in such matters as what one can do on the Sabbath, or the ritual exclusivity that made so many fellow creatures untouchable aliens, but an expression as St John puts it of God’s love for us translated into our love for others.
Thanks to Paul, it’s not this profound, substantive following of the Law that Christianity has, for the most part adopted, but a instead a different sort of living, that of living as Christ, both individually and more significantly as a community, and corporately, by literally becoming his body, becoming Him, active in the world. We have tried to be what Christ would have been; we have tried individually to do as Christ would have done, and have been inspired as a church to influence the world, to bring it round to being the perfection it is intended to be by the corporate action of the church. This has led to some pretty hideous abuses; but these follies apart, the idea that we are as Christians Christ himself still at work in the world, has been a great inspiration, and the motivation for much good work; we tend to forget that such welfare as the state now tries to provide was once, in western Europe at least, provided by the church. Imitating Christ has become a means of expression of love which St John talks about.
It’s a little paradoxical that the limb of the church which provided most of that welfare was the monasteries which adopted the more Talmudic, detailed regulation of a pure life away from the distractions of the world, but just as the Mosaic code is always conscious of the existence of alien neighbours and the need to respect and accommodate them, so the apparently reclusive monasteries were in fact at the forefront of social engagement and improvement, perhaps because the monks also adopted an extreme humility, in imitation of Christ.
Does all this have anything to tell us about how we should either live the Law or become like Christ, as members of his body?
There are examples of traditional and strict observance of a Law living more or less harmoniously within, although separate from our society; Stamford Hill would be one, and until recently the three major religions of the Middle East co-existed in its great cities in peaceful but traditional seclusion. Globalisation with its easy movement of ideas and people has made this harder as an ideal for secular Christians like us, harder, but not I suggest impossible. There are hideous examples of intolerance in the world, but I see in the youth of this country, this city, any way an easy going acceptance and respect for different ways of life. Perhaps a more rigorous adherence to rules or systems would not be impossible, although I think we might want to look quite closely at the traditional systems currently available, before adopting any one of them.
The alternative- that of imitation of Christ and becoming his body on earth, is also difficult, because, although corporate, it is essentially based in the individual and personal response to Jesus as revealed in the Gospels, and it hard to apply to macro-ethics, or international politics.
The two alternatives are not, of course, mutually exclusive; we might try harder both to restore faith in the underlying principles of the Law, even if we reject some of it outdated subsidiary rules and we might try living in a Christ like way rejecting the mass and mercenary appeal of, for example the populist press. We might, and to some extent we do try to express those universal principles in our daily and mundane existence. We could and we should do more to show the world what real living might be like. Amen.