Sermon: God's love transcends human laws and judgements
The Reverend Nils Chittenden, Minor Canon
Preached on 4th June 2005
(Second Sunday of Trinity)
by The Reverend Nils Chittenden
Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
When, in the early nineties, I was making my choice of which theological college to go to, in order to prepare for ordination, I decided that I would apply to two and see which suited better. I was called for interview at both places, and as chance would have it the two visits were on consecutive days. Both places were relatively traditional and in what one could call the ‘Catholic' tradition of Anglicanism. I duly turned up to the first one and found it to be a highly structured and regulated regime. There were very particular rules about everything, it seemed to me. Attendance by students at everything was expected and, I was told, non-attendance would result in a rather tart note from the Principal within minutes of conclusion of the non-attendance. Hmmm. That sounds nice, I thought.
Then, the day after, I went to the other place. It had the full richness of the Catholic tradition: the worship, a governance of the community where each was encouraged to participate and play their part for the good of that community. Not so very different in some ways, perhaps, from the day before. But no little typewritten notes for not being at something, no framework of anxiety at the potential consequences of having got something wrong.
I remember figuring it out at once, and it helped me to make up my mind. It struck me very clearly that whilst both places strove for instilling a sense of orderliness and discipline, one achieved this through the imposition of authority and the other achieved this through instilling a sense of personal responsibility.
Now I know that this does not do entire justice to these two theological colleges, and that things cannot really be compartmentalised in this way, but it did strike me as a helpful lesson for me to learn that the art of self-discipline is so very much more valuable than imposed discipline.
The crunch is, of course, that self-discipline is also very much more demanding. It requires more thought, more interpretation, more room for mistakes. But it also seems to me that there is a much greater capacity to express love when one operates on the self-discipline model than on the legalistic model. Or to put it another way, when I was a child, my mother was so much more impressed if I did the washing up out without being asked, out of the goodness of my heart, than if she had to ask me (often repeatedly) to do it.
This is not to say, of course, that we do not require laws. We are, sadly, self-serving and self-seeking people and more often than not we cannot be relied upon to exercise our self-discipline, personal responsibility and actions entirely motivated by love, but what I am saying is that we will be better people if we take this more demanding path than if we opt for an uncomplicated and unthinking life of simply being told what to do. To love is to take risks, to think for ourselves, to consider others, to dare to be different, to make the effort to discern a Christ-like response to a situation and not to confine God to sets of earth-bound rules.
Our gospel reading today is shot-through with this, it seems to me. At every turn Jesus questions hide-bound attitudes and bases his responses on love alone. He teaches us that loving responses supersede the strict letter of the law.
For a leader of a synagogue - a highly respectable social position - to fall at the feet of an unconventional itinerant preacher was to contradict what society would have told him was right, but his love for his ailing daughter was such that it transcended such social niceties. The woman with long-term haemorrhaging was an outcast from conventional society, and the law prohibited social and physical contact with the religious functionaries. Yet when she touched Jesus - who was, after all, a religious leader - his response was love and not law.
With the leader of the synagogue and his daughter, and with the woman with haemorrhages, it is not too difficult for us to identify compassionately with them. They are victims of circumstance. They have been dealt an unfair blow by life.
Perhaps it is harder for us to be so compassionate towards the less savoury characters in our gospel reading, which opens with Jesus calling Matthew, the tax collector. Religious leaders did not give tax collectors the time of day, but Jesus did, because it was loving to acknowledge Matthew as a cherished child of God with many talents. We are told that Jesus then went to dinner with the sorts of people that were generally given an extremely wide berth. Those people were considered by religious law to be ritually unclean. Jesus not only spent time with them but, crucially, I would want to suggest that he genuinely enjoyed being with them, too. Perhaps this doesn't seem a terribly shocking action to us, but what if it we were to attempt to translate it into a more current example? Would we - if we were honest with ourselves - be scandalised or at least uneasy if, say, a bishop were regularly to have dinner with his local drug-dealer and clearly enjoy cultivating that friendship?
Perhaps embedded in our lack of ease with these unsavoury characters is their culpability for their actions: their wrongdoing is easy to pin down and to label. Perhaps we are tempted to make distinctions between those who deserve compassion and love and those who don't. Jesus teaches us that no sin is so great that it cannot be forgiven. He teaches us that no one's behaviour is so bad that it cannot be met with a loving response. Jesus bestows dignity and worth on those he meets and by taking the time to be with them and to recognise the potential for redemption and goodness in them, he fulfils the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. There is no partiality with his love. And he demands of his hearers and of us that our natural response to a situation is with mercy.
During the Napoleonic Wars, a young battle-weary French soldier fell asleep whilst on guard duty. He was court-martialled, found guilty and sentenced to death. His widowed mother appealed her son's case to every level of command, but to no avail. Finally, in her persistence, she managed to obtain an audience with the Emperor himself.
Falling at his feet, the woman begged him to spare her son's life, explaining he was her only child and sole means of support.
"I do not ask for justice," she said, "I plead for mercy."
"Madam, your son does not deserve mercy. He deserves to die," Napoleon said coldly.
The mother immediately replied, with a logic so touching that it changed the emperor's mind, "You are right, sir, of course. That is why I am asking you for mercy. If he were deserving, it would not be mercy."