Evensong & Benediction Sunday 9 September 2018 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 9 September 2018

TRINITY 16,  2018 EVENSONG 

Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses

Readings: Exodus 18.13-26; Matthew 7.1-14 

Our reading from Matthew comes from the collection of Jesus’ teachings that we call the Sermon on the Mount.  At first hearing it sounds like a rather loose collection of individual sayings, any one of which could provide the text for a sermon.  

But there is a common thread running through these sayings. Earlier in the sermon Jesus had given his disciples the Lord’s Prayer.   Now he speaks of some of the attitudes and habits required for prayer, for prayer does not happen in a spiritual vacuum, a realm detached from the rest of life. It needs to be rooted in and supported by:  

  • a forgiving, non-judgemental attitude to others;
  • an active concern for their good;
  • a sense of the holy and reverence toward it;
  • an attitude of complete trust in the God;
  • an awareness of our moral responsibility, that we will be judged. 

“Do not judge” follows from what Jesus has already said about “forgiving us as we ourselves forgive” (Matt 6.12, 14-15). 

Our treatment of other people is central to the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon on the Mount and the rulings on the Law by the new Moses which follow and which radicalize its demands: “You have heard it said…but I say unto you.”   Now Jesus adds specific instructions on judgement.  What he has in mind is not so much judicial condemnation or even church discipline (which he deals with later in the gospel) but the fundamental attitude that we should adopt to one another. 

If our first and continuing tendency is to find fault and to condemn, we lay ourselves open to similar treatment at the last judgement. As the humorously exaggerated image of the log in the eye seeks to show, only when we have come to a genuine self-knowledge and an awareness of our own weakness, will we be qualified to set about correcting others. 

This warning is especially relevant in church communities. Strong commitment to principles can produce an equally strong inclination to fault-finding and severity of judgement. This tendency is sometimes made worse by our own consciousness that we do not always measure up to the standards we proclaim. So we deflect attention of others and ourselves from our failings by pointing to those of others. 

None of us is the judge in our own case and none of us should be too sure that our own judgement will not be found wanting when put to the test by an independent judge.  Only when we remove the beam, that is, when we repent of our own sins, can we see clearly enough to know another’s sins. 

“Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” 

Unlike the British, the Jews did not keep dogs as family pets. They were unclean animals. “Dogs’ was an insulting term used of Gentiles. Pigs, of course, were even more unclean.  

The kingdom of heaven is represented as “a pearl of great price” (Matt. 13.45-46).  So membership of the kingdom or teaching about it should not be given to just anyone.  The saying has the hallmark of a protective measure that denies access to membership, teaching and Eucharist to persons who are fundamentally hostile, frivolous or insincere. 

In our own tradition, this passage had a particular place for the Tractarians and their principle of “Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge.”  One of them, Isaac Williams, best known now as a hymn-writer, wrote two tracts on the subject which stirred up quite a bit of controversy. 

They looked back to the Church of the early centuries when in the process of preparing people for baptism as adults, teaching on some aspects of the faith, the creed and sacraments for example, was held back until they were judged ready; until they had shown sufficient conversion of life. 

The Tractarians applied this principle of “reserve” to two trends in the Church of their time which they considered dangerous.  One was the rationalism of the 18th century which led to a concentration on intellectual arguments for belief at the expense of the life of obedience and holiness.  This was a religion of the head. 

The other was evangelical preaching which erred in the direction of the sentimental and even manipulative; concentrating on dramatic moments of conversion and how to produce them; on the religious feelings of the convert rather than a life of moral transformation and growth in holiness. This was a religion of the heart. 

The former of these tendencies was much in vogue in the 60s and 70s, seeking to reconcile Christianity with modern thought, but has rather fallen out of favour since.  The latter, is still very much with us.   It is not that there is no place for head and heart, reason and feelings, intellect and emotions, in the Christian life, but that each need the other and both need to be rooted in the life of obedient and persevering holiness. 

It is right to examine these tendencies with a critical eye, but more important than seeing the speck in the eyes of others, is the pursuit of that holiness which springs from taking the mysteries of Christ’s religion, word and sacrament, people and places, disciplines and practices, seriously and reverently. 

This is not about the ostentatious piety, paraded before others, which Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount, but a proper reverence and respect which enters into the depths of our hearts and minds and transforms our lives from within. 

The saying which follows speaks of prayer and trust in God.  “Ask,” “seek” and “knock,” describe the prayer of petition.  The granting of the request in each case is emphasised by the repetition of the promise that the Father will respond in a way which exceeds that of caring human parents. As usual in Matthew, the action of God is expressed passively or indirectly:  “it will be given”, “you will find” and “it will be opened”.  Such trust in God is often the hardest thing for us. We pray but God does not always seem to answer; or not in the way we expect or want. 

Then, to round off the central preaching of the sermon, comes the “Golden Rule”: 

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” 

Though something of an isolated statement here in this sermon, this fits into a broader context of Jewish moral teaching. A rabbi would be asked: “Could the entire body of the law be summed up in a sentence, or recited while standing on one foot?”  A famous example is found in the Babylonian Talmud – a great compilation of commentary on the Law. Shammai and Hillel were two famous rabbis who lived at more or less the same time as Jesus.  Shammai was a rigorist, stricter in his interpretation of the Law. Hillel was more compassionate and would have been seen as a wishy-washy liberal by Shammai and his disciples.   

A Gentile approached Shammai promising to convert if he could teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot.  Shammai chased him away with a stick. 

So the Gentile tried Hillel, hoping for a more welcoming response. This came in what is called the “Silver Rule”: 

“What you yourself hate, do not do to anyone; this is the whole law, the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”  

This echoes a maxim in the Book of Tobit: “Do to no one what you would not want done to yourself.”  Tob. 4.15 

The “Silver Rule” is negative, telling us what we should not do.  Jesus’ “Golden Rule” is positive, telling us what should do. It expresses the underlying principle running though the teaching of the Law and the Prophets and Jesus’s interpretation of them: “So always treat others as you would like them to treat you, that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.”  (Matt 7.12.) 

This is echoed by Paul in Galatians:

‘The whole Law is summarized in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself,”’ (Gal 5.14) and in Romans:

‘The one who loves his neighbour has fulfilled the law…all the commandments …are summed up in this single command: “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” 

‘Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.’  (Rom. 13.8-10) 

The Golden Rule’s summing up “the Law and the Prophets” relates back to what Jesus says earlier in the sermon:  that he has come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them, Matt. 5.17). The two sayings frame the central body of the sermon. 

Our passage concludes with warnings about judgement. 

Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses. In his final teaching as the people prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses had put before the people a blessing and a curse, to show the consequences of  keeping God’s law or failing to do so, in their new home.  Now, Jesus puts two options and their consequences; following or not following his teaching.  He uses familiar biblical imagery of the two ways: the way to destruction and the way to life, the way of the kingdom and the way of judgement.  The narrow gate and the difficult way are contrasted with the wide and the easy. 

This may sound harsh and judgemental, even rather demeaning of our human dignity. But the fact that we are to be judged should reinforce that dignity by teaching us that it is found in our status as moral beings whom God has created as capable, with God’s grace of choosing between good and evil, life and death.