Michaelmas Term, 2016
16th October, Rev. Dr Simon Perry
Grace in the Sermon of Jesus
Have you ever wondered what British values are? (Presuming that the pound is not a measure of British value.) A sixth form college with whom I have links, has recently been criticised by ofsted because it didn’t sufficiently exhibit British values. Well, I put it to you that if there are such things as British Values, we can discover what they are by reading them, or perhaps, into - Bible. In particular, the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is a first century Messianic TED talk and appears in scripture as a series of moral aphorisms that all good Christian folk are expected to display. The so-called Sermon on the Mount, is usually translated as a series of platitudes ripe for Radio’s 2 Thought-for-Day.
In the popular mind set, it sound like Jesus was a perfectly sensible English gentlemen from the 1920s, delivering moral guidance for how to be a good egg. Turn the other cheek, love everyone, don’t make a show of your generosity. It’s all stuff that could just as easily include, hug a hoody, tip a waiter, give money to rough sleepers. These moral aphorisms are widely perceived as the bedrock of traditional British culture and pillars of western ethical goodness. Oh come come, don’t be a bad sport - be nice to people, don’t cause trouble, go out of your way to be helpful.
Of course the Bible is read as a source of British values. As one elderly Anglican lady once told me, the Bible is just a bunch of quotations from the Book of Common Prayer.
So when we hear the Bible in its context, such well known nuggets of ethical guidance are interpreted into a morality Jesus of Nazareth would not recognise. So the reading today, is from Jesus’s sermon – and includes these three well known commandments. The first is turn the other cheek. When someone insults you, offer them the other side of your face and let them insult you a little more. Become a human door mat for abusers. If you feel downtrodden, buckle under, put up with it, grin and bear it, chin up.
First century Palestine was an occupied territory. If a Superior slapped someone in the face, they had to use their right hand, as the left was used for toiletries. Hence, if someone strikes you on your right cheek, with their right hand, they are using the back of their hand. In Roman culture, though, if you slap someone with the palm of your hand rather than the back of your hand, it means you consider them an equal. By turning the other cheek, you are inviting your superior to slap you with the palm of his hand, demanding to be treated as an equal. It is a brilliant form of passive resistance, by radically over-complying with Roman authority.
The same is true of the second command. Under what circumstances might a person take the garments of another? The Jewish legal system entitled creditors to take the coat from the back of their impoverished debtors as a guarantee, though they had to return the garment at night since it doubled as a sleeping garment. The humiliation involved is outlined in Torah (Dt. 24:10-13) and in a context where Roman imperial policy ultimately led to land seizures and countless farmers were reduced to debt, this would have been a scenario all-too-familiar. How are Galilean peasants to respond to this unrelenting assault upon their land, their livelihoods and their dignity? Jesus does not counsel rebellion. Nor does he reaffirm the justice of the Torah and counsel compliance. Again, he calls for over-compliance, giving to the creditor not only one’s outer garment but also the shirt from one’s back. This act of defiance, both highlights to everyone present the humiliation to which ruthless Jewish creditors are subjecting their own folk, and in so doing, humiliates the creditors themselves. Again, this is an action that subverts the social hierarchy precisely by obeying it.
The same is true of the third command – going the second mile, which is often taken as a moral injunction to go out of your way to help others. However, in Roman society, a soldier was entitled to commandeer the services of natives to carry their packs for one mile – and on major military routes from Rome to the frontier with the Parthians, there would be a lot of traffic. So by going the second mile, Jewish inhabitants would be subverting Roman authority by saying – no, I am not carrying this pack because of your law, but because of my generosity. It removes the superiority of the Roman occupier, not by disobeying the law but by radically over-complying with it.
What has any of this to do with grace, which after all is the theme for this term? The context is that of loving your enemies. It is sometimes called, The Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do to you. Do as you would be done to. Sometimes called the Empathic principle. Jesus, it is often thought, simply endorses this golden rule. The trouble is, Jesus’ command to love others is thoroughly radicalised by insisting that those others include your enemies. There is a wealth of ancient literature from multiple cultures that are wheeled out to show Jesus was saying nothing new. There are other text exhorting leaders to show political love to their peers, their allies, to those they have conquered, – but in none of the 20 or so I’ve read, is there anything demanding that loving others means loving one’s enemies.
To do that, is to introduce the destabilising element of grace. Grace, I suggested last week, is unprovoked, comes unexpectedly from beyond, and causes chaos to a status quo that was working perfectly well for me thank you very much. That is precisely how grace functions in Jesus’s sermon – and in Luke’s version of this sermon he actually uses the word grace. I’ve paraphrased it slightly, to read
“If you love those who love you,
What does grace mean to you?
For even sinners love those who love them.
If you are good to those who are good to you,
What does grace mean to you?
For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive,
What does grace mean to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
In first century Palestine, enemies were the distant dictators in Rome, the local Jewish aristocracy who, as collaborators, served as Rome’s executive officers, and of course – one’s neighbours driven to despair and desperate to survive. This was the social hierarchy Jesus addressed – and rather than counselling rebellion, he counselled radical over compliance to unmask the realities of the injustices that dehumanised countless members of the populace.
Jesus does not counsel outright military rebellion, nor does he suggest everyone just knuckle under. Instead, he urges his listeners to become channels of divine grace – not so that they can become grinaholic religious fruitcakes, but so that liberation is a personal as well as a political reality. His followers are agents of grace – and it is through this bunch of down-to-earth followers sat on a hillside in a politically volatile and economically desperate corner of the earth – that the character of Israel’s God is manifested.
It is through them that grace comes, unprovoked, from beyond the system, to introduce liberating chaos into an unjust world. I’m not sure how British that is. British values are not read in, but perhaps read into the Bible. Nothing in the sermon on the Mount belongs in Radio 4’s Thought for the Day.
Grace is the ideological earthquake that causes people to question the validity of any and every value system.
Grace is the unexpected irruption of otherness into the familiar, everyday status quo with which we might have been perfectly at ease.
Grace is the repulsive, offensive, intrusive, shocking, liberating and humanising presence of the God of scripture through the human face of real people here and now.
Loving God, we thank you for the place you have given us, the breath in our lungs and the time entrusted to us.
We thank you for the friendships that define us, for the enemies who define us no less, for all our neighbours.
We pray for our neighbours here, those near to us, whose lives somehow interweave with ours. Those we know only by their car, their front door, their routines – we pray that you will help us to be good neighbours, agents of grace in the place we live.
We pray for those living on the door step of our college. Those who are hungry and homeless, those who are busy or lonely or empty. Bless them with a taste of your loving presence. Use us as ministers of your kingdom, representing your grace to our neighbours.
We pray for those who, in a globalised world, we may not have considered our neighbour. For children in the Calais jungle, for the terrorised and fearful inhabitants of Allepo. In a world where those who are distant are not beyond the reach of our action, show us how to be channels of grace and save us from indifference.
We thank you for the community life of our college, for the grace shown to us here and for the opportunities to be channels of grace. May harmonious and caring relations may continue to deepen and flourish as the year progresses. Show us who is our neighbour and help us to love them.
Loving God, who created us to live with our neighbour, show us how to be recreated ever more fully into your image.
Show us who is our neighbour, and show us how to be theirs, to the glory of your name.