TRINITY 12 Gospel: Mark 7.1-8 14-15 21-23 Preached in the Community church 30 August 2009
My message this morning is based on the opening words of the Letter to the Hebrews:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world (Hebrews 1.1f).
God has spoken through his Son, the Word of God. Jesus delivers Godís final word. There can be no new revelation but only the drawing out, the development through the guidance of the Holy Spirit of that which has been revealed through the Word made flesh. On the mountain of the Transfiguration Jesus stands between Moses and Elijah and God the Father in the voice from the cloud declares, this is my beloved Son, listen to him.
In the lesson at Mattins from Deuteronomy Moses declares, ĎYou shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from ití. The evangelists remark how Jesus throughout his ministry taught with authority and not like the scribes. Jesus didnít merely interpret the Law of God like the scribes but announced it. Sometimes, indeed, he cancels the Law given through Moses, sometimes he modifies it and sometimes he strengthens it.
Jesus in St Matthewís Gospel chapter 5, the Sermon on the Mount, said ĎThink not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.í He brings their promises to fruition.
We see this very clearly when he goes on to speak about the requirements of the Ten Commandments. He strengthens the command not to kill with the command, Do not be angry. Be reconciled to your brother. Moses allowed divorce but Jesus restricts this permission. Moses says Do not swear an oath falsely but Jesus says Do not swear at all. Jesus rejects altogether the Lex talionis, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Rather, he says, do not resist one who is evil.
The Old Testament is full of violence, killing and war. Sometimes we read that God explicitly required this. The example of Jesus is very different. When falsely accused and condemned to death he is silent and goes like a lamb to the slaughter though he could have summoned heavenís army of angels to rescue him.
In the Gospel reading we heard this morning Jesus criticised the Pharisees for giving greater weight to the tradition of the elders than they gave to the Law of God delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai. They interpreted Godís Law in such a way as to set it aside. Yet surprisingly at the end of the chapter Jesus himself does this when he abrogated the Mosaic purity laws concerning clean and unclean food. In Christian moral theology these purity laws have been understood as requiring virtues or forbidding vices.
Some Christians, particularly in past centuries, regarded the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments as the Word of God but as our text from Hebrews indicates this doesnít mean that every part is binding on us. What the prophets of the Old Testament taught and did must be considered in the light of the Lordís teaching.
We have the highest regard for the canonical scriptures. They are inspired by God and reveal Godís purposes to us. Hence before the Holy Gospel is read it is honoured with incense in the same way as the Blessed Sacrament. The Gospel Book is an icon of Christ.
However, I think that itís unfortunate to end some scripture readings with the declaration This is the Word of the Lord. I much prefer the South African practice of saying Hear the Word of the Lord. This is an invitation to discern in the reading what God is saying to us. Discernment is needed, not slavish unquestioning acceptance of the face value meaning of what is written.
Discernment is needed when the Church struggles with such issues as divorce or gay issues or euthanasia. What the Bible says is not Godís final Word on such matters. The Old Testament must be read in the light of the New and above all in the light of our Lordís command to love one another. Circumstances today are different from those of long ago. We need to listen to Christ the Word of God as he speaks to the Church today.
Crispin Harrison CR