Sunday, 8 May 2011

Teach them to obey everything? Jesus, the new Moses

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy stand as a great testament to the way God wants his people to live in the world. The Torah is more than a collection of rules and regulations, it is the account of a people living life to the full under God. And it offers a way of life for the people of God to fulfil.

If Leviticus focuses on the ritual of priest and tabernacle, sacrifice and atonement, Numbers returns to the story of the people wandering in the wilderness under the leadership of Moses and Deuteronomy is as the very name itself in Greek suggests the second reading of the law. It is a kind of summation Moses shares with the people as he stands on the threshold of the promised land.

Here in Deut 4.1 is what this Law, God’s way for the world is all about.

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you.

When Jesus breaks into the world the turning point in Matthew, Mark and Luke of his story comes at Caesarea Philippi as his followers recognise in him the long expected Messiah and then on the Mount of Transfiguration it is as if this recognition receives the seal of approval from Moses as the one who stands for all the Law, and Elijah the one who stands for all the prophets.

At his resurrection the women tell the disciples to go ahead of Jesus to Galilee where Jesus will meet with them. In Matthew 28 that is exactly what happens – and as Jesus meets with his disciples he gives them a commission to go into all the world,

It is as if Jesus is standing on the threshold of the world he has come to – it is not the promised land, but the whole world. And as he stands on the threshold of that world he has something to share with his disciples, and it is just as Moses had shared so long ago …

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’

People are to obey everything Jesus has commanded just as long before the people of God were to obey everything Moses had laid out. Matthew recognises in Jesus a new Moses.

See, just as the LORD my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy.

Can you hear the echoes in what Jesus says in Matthew 28?

More than that, Matthew brings the commandments, the teaching of Jesus into five great discourses – an echo of the five books of the law.

In the middle of his gospel in chapter 13 is Jesus teaching in the form of parables all about God’s rule.

On either side is Jesus teaching for the mission of the twelve (in chapter 10) and the life of the church (in chapter 18). And then at the beginning in chapters 5-7 the great sermon on the mount in which Jesus works out what life in the kingdom will be like. And then at the end in chapters 23,24,25 Jesus final words of challenge.

What’s fascinating at the beginning of the sermon on the mount is that wonderful statement we think of as the Beatitudes – Blessed are … and at the beginning of the last great sermon, a set of Woes to those who are falsely religious.

It is as if the whole of all that Jesus stands for is a matter of blessing or of woe.

There are all sorts of echoes here of Deuteronomy which comes to hinge on blessing and curse and making the right choice.

Jesus has taken all the Torah is and brought it to fulfilment in himself, in his story and in his commandments. It is not that he has come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them. The point is that the kingdom is coming in Christ, the moment of accomplishment when all is fulfilled is at hand … and so this new Moses has a new Torah to share entirely in keeping with, but at the same time fulfilling the old Torah, and bringing it to fulfilment – a new slant, you have heard it said, I say to you.

But there is in what Jesus stands for a new twist. He is not the all-conquering hero who carries all before him – he is the suffering servant who goes to his cross. What’s more he is the one who invites his followers to take up their cross, share in this suffering servanthood and follow him.

And there is a new twist here.

Deuteronomy is in some ways all about success and people thinking well of you …

I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

Jesus too longs for people to be wise and discerning. As far as Jesus is concerned the wise man is the one who hears the words of Christ and acts on them – he is like the wise man who builds his house on the rock.

But Jesus knows full well that that will not necessarily bring praise and adulation from people out there.

Far from it, people will fail to understand for the way of love that Jesus maps out, the way of blessedness that he is about is one that people will find deeply offensive and object to massively. It is the way of love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy that will result not in everyone saying that’s brilliant but in everyone taking offence.

David Cook, the Bible translator who spent time with us at the Ministers Conference shared with me a wonderful reading of the Sermon on the Mount.

How many beatitudes are there? He asked. Some texts, not least the NRSV, include Matthew 5:9 with the beaitutides. A ninth beatitude. But it is written quite differently from the others. It lacks the poetry. It is one too many.

No, he suggested.

It is the start of the next section of the sermon on the mount.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you

What does it take to be the people willing to be reviled and persecuted and spoken ill of?

It means you will be salt of the earth – you will be the light of the world.

Salt in a tasteless world, light in a dark world.

And you won’t be admired but persecuted for it.

Quite the opposite of the popularity envisaged in Deuteronomy 4.

How far can we take seriously the sermon on the Mount?

I was reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer this week – passionate about being a peacemaker, committed in his opposition to Nazism, he was willing to make one compromise – and so became part of the bomb plot to assassinate Hitler.

Does the assassination of Osama bin Laden have echoes of that? I wonder.

It does raise questions for us as Christians. How do we respond to terrorism. What would Jesus do? What does Jesus want us to do?

It is important to raise the question. I for one feel the Archbishop of Canterbury was right to do so … and has a right to do so as one of those who on 9/11 was only two blocks away found himself very much caught up in all that happened.

He calls in question whether justice is seen to be done in such an assassination. It is a big question. One we need to ask.

I was moved when Felicity drew my attention to something that Sharon Wallington had posted on Facebook. It made me stop and think again …

It was Sharon Wallington who posted the heart-felt response on Facebook that Felicity drew my attention to.

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice at the death of one, not even an enemy. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate only love can do that.
Martin Luther King Jr

That was it.

That is what had unsettled me so much.

Those scenes of jubilation that greeted the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden were as profoundly disturbing as the scenes of jubilation that had in some places greeted the news of 9/11.

That is what is in danger of making us hurtle further down the spiral of destruction terrorism unleashes on us.

Sharon went on to comment on the quotations she had posted

“... Because I can’t say it better myself and am sickened by the triumphant baying to which my kids are subjected every time they turn on the TV or radio. I read this to them this morning.

It was good to read the many responses Sharon had.

One friend commented, “I too was sickened by those of us who hated the crowing of some when the towers were attacked, now crowing because we have revenge. “Vengeance is mine says the Lord.”

What challenged me further was the quotation Sharon then posted from Romans 12

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Are those words of Paul, echoing as they do the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, simply pious platitudes that have nothing to do with the real world?

Or are these the words of Christ we are not only to hear but also to act on if we are to have the wisdom and the discernment of the wise man who built his house on the rock?

One thing I am pretty sure of. These are not popular responses.

But then Jesus did not want us to seek popularity, but to risk the unpopularity of following the way of God as he outlined it with its unrelenting emphasis on the way of love, even love for enemies too.

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