Sun, Oct 29, 2017

The language of Law and Love


"I'm going to the football on Saturday!"

Now, leaving aside the fact that it's the wrong time of year-- 

what mental image does that conjure in your mind? 


For most of you, the mental image it would evoke would be that of Australian Rules football.

For some, however, it might be soccer.

For some, it might even be rugby league.

And, of course, for some people--

though probably no one here today--

it would be American football. 

It would all depend on where you were born and grew up... 

and in what sort of family. 

At the same time, what I meant by it would depend on where I was born...

where I grew up...

and in what sort of family.

As the hearer, if you knew my background-- 

and you knew me-- 

you would be able to work it out. 

If you didn't know me, you would have to make a guess. 

Otherwise, you might implicitly impose your own mental image... 

and assume that that's what I meant. 


Now, that's a simple example to illustrate a crucially important point-- 

namely, that meaning is not inherent in words themselves. 

Rather, meaning comes from the culture of the speaker and the hearer. 

Thus, whenever we listen to something spoken by someone from another culture--

or we read something written by someone from another culture--

we cannot simply assume that we know what the words mean. 

We cannot simply assume that we know what the speaker--

or the writer-- 


Simply translating a word from one language... 

into a seemingly equivalent word in another language...

does not ensure that we have arrived at the sense of the original. 

But, unfortunately, that's precisely what we do so frequently... 

when we translate, read, and interpret the Bible. 

We see a word that we recognise... 

and we assume that we know what it means. 

In other words, we see a word... 

and we implicitly impose our own cultural assumptions upon it.

But if we want to understand what the author meant...

or intended...

then we need to understand what the words meant within their original cultural context.

In our reading from Matthew's Gospel, this morning... 

there are a number of words that are easily misunderstood...

if we don't do just that.


The story begins with a Pharisee going to Jesus with a question about "the Law".

Now, within our culture, the word "Law" refers to a system of rules...

that are designed to regulate social behaviour by the imposition of penalties.

Taking that even further...

within a religious context--

at least, since Martin Luther and the Reformation--

we have understood the Hebrew Law as an attempt to earn God's approval by doing what was mandated...

or else!

The Law--

we have been told--

was what the Hebrew people thought you did to become God's people.

It was a way to earn God's approval and to be right in God's eyes.

But, in reality, the Hebrew people never understood it that way.

The Law was not a way to earn God's approval.

That approval was freely given.

It came simply by being a part of the covenant people.

Rather, the Law was meant to be their response to God's graciousness.

Obedience to the Law was meant to be an act of gratitude for God's grace.

Thus, there were lively discussions among Hebrew religious scholars--

such as the Pharisees--

as to what that meant in practice.

In effect, "given that there is a multitude of ways of responding to God's grace...

what's the most important?".

And that's the question that Jesus is actually asked here.

He responds by quoting two verses of scripture--

suggesting that what matters most is...

to "love" God...

and to "love" your "neighbour".

But what did he--

and they--

understand by that word, "love"?

First of all, for the Hebrew people, love was not an emotion--

certainly not in the way that we understand emotions today.

It wasn't some sort of warm, gooey feeling...

nor was it some gushy sentimental ideal--

despite what Hollywood would have us believe it to be.

Even when Jesus speaks of loving God "with all your heart", he's not speaking in emotional terms.

We may have a poetic and metaphorical image of the heart as the seat of the emotions--

but the Hebrew people didn't.

For them, it was the seat of rational thought--

more akin, perhaps, to how we use "mind";

while, for them, the mind was the seat of one's volition or will.

So there's no sense here of love being some sentimental emotion.

Rather, the Hebrew people understood "love" as a way of being.

Love was an attitude.

And love was an attitude and a way of being that resulted in a certain way of living. 

It was about how you acted and how you related.

Love was-- 

more than anything else-- 

the way that you responded to your family and kin.

In fact, it was really only a response to kin.

It was marked by things such as obligation...




and mutual support.

Love was encouraging other kinfolk to do whatever was needed for the common good.

So what Jesus says here is that the most appropriate response to God's grace--

and God's graciousness to us--

is to treat God like you would treat your kinfolk...

and to treat other people--


as if they were kin.

And yet, by linking the two, Jesus is saying that it is by treating others as kin...

that we actually honour God;

it's by demonstrating our nurture and care for others...

that we show our love for God;

and, conversely, our love for God is demonstrated by our nurture and care of others.


In Luke's Gospel, this saying prompts a question that's not asked here--

"who is my neighbour?"

Luke's provocative, socially subversive, and highly offensive response...

is the Parable of the Good Samaritan...

which suggests that 'neighbour' is not defined in religious...

or social...

or ethnic terms.

Luke's response is that the definition of neighbour--

toward whom such love and care is to be directed--

actually transcends all social boundaries...

and all social barriers.

Matthew, unfortunately, doesn't spell it out.

And, perhaps, he might have found Luke's definition too broad and too subversive.

And yet, treating "neighbour"-- 

who, by any definition, is not kin-- 

as if they were kin...

still blows the whole thing wide open.


In the end, what this says to us is that our faith... 

our spirituality...

and our religion... 

are to be seen in how we live and in how we relate...

especially to those outside of the relationships and the boundaries that our culture expects... 

or that our culture dictates as acceptable or appropriate.

In other words, our spirituality--

our religion...

our response to God's grace--

is not characterised by, nor reflected in, what we do in church on Sunday morning...

nor even in our moments of private devotion.

It's seen in how we respond to the tatty, urine-smelling, street-bum...

to the traumatised asylum seeker...

to the foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalist, homophobic street-preacher...

or whoever it is that pushes our social, cultural, religious, or personal buttons.

As Thomas Jefferson once said:

"It is in our lives, and not in our words, that our religion must be read".

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