Keeping God’s law

44507029 - the ten commandments on a sunset background

The readings for last Sunday were the Ten Commandments from the book of Exodus, followed by Jesus visiting the Temple in John’s Gospel and driving out the moneychangers and the traders with a whip. Here’s what I said.

Exodus 20.1-17; John 2.13-22

I’m sure that all of you here consider yourselves to be good, upright, law-abiding citizens, who would never wittingly break any laws or statutes currently in force. Even if you don’t always agree with them.

Of course – that rather depends on you knowing the law. Just in case you should want to brush up your knowledge of the law, to avoid inadvertently committing any breaches, the British Library rather conveniently keeps copies of all the laws in force – you can go and consult them if you wish. Though I wouldn’t advise it. I’ve read that apparently our general laws and statutes currently fill 358 volumes, while local laws and other private acts fill another 682 volumes. Adding in even more volumes containing statutory instruments that’s 104 shelves of the British Library for you to work your way through.

However, this morning, to help you stay within the law, I’d just like to remind you of some laws that are currently in force. I really wouldn’t want you to inadvertently run foul of the authorities, so yesterday I searched on the Internet for ‘strange laws still in force in the UK’. And this is what I found out.

1839 seems to have been a good year for introducing new laws. In the Metropolitan Police Act of 1839 it was made illegal to be drunk in a pub. I wonder how many people break the law every Saturday night.

Given the current weather conditions you may like to know that since 1839 it has been against the law to slide on ice in the street.  In that year it was made illegal – and it still is – to beat or shake any carpet or rug in the street. You can shake your doormat but only if it’s before 8am. And in the same batch of laws it was made illegal to hang up your washing on a washing line across the street.

I think my favourite law which is still, apparently, in force, is that it is illegal to handle a salmon in suspicious circumstances – although nothing is specified as to what that actually means. Perhaps you just pick one up at the fish counter in the local supermarket and look around furtively.

It’s a good thing that God’s Law is somewhat more comprehensive than the Law of the Land. The first five books of the Old Testament – somewhat briefer than the more than a thousand volumes of law in the British Library – are known in Hebrew as the Torah, or ‘The Law’. And our first reading reminds us of the giving of one portion, and the best-known and most important portion, of God’s Law, the Ten Commandments. And this passage is possibly the best-known in the whole of the Old Testament.

The ten commandments are described as the words that God spoke to the people of Israel after delivering them from slavery in Egypt.  Following in the wise ways of these ten leads to stronger relationships with God and our neighbour. And if you look you will see that they split up into two sections. The first four are about our relationship with God, and the remaining six about our relationships with each other. They are a vision of the community that God longs for us to live in.

And, as God’s community here in this part of Caterham, we should always be asking ourselves how we see this vision coming to life in our midst. In what ways does our community of believers live in justice with creation and with the people of the world, and in what ways does our community of believers seek the pre-eminence of God and the true worship of God?

Jesus came to teach people what it means to live in God’s way and to truly fulfil God’s Law. And Jesus very helpfully sums up the Law, and especially the ten commandments with their emphasis on our relationship with God and with each other, somewhat more succinctly in a way that is far easier for us to remember, and which we’ve been using through Lent when we make our confession. He said:

The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is the only Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself.

Some people will always get it wrong though. Some people will never grasp that the commandments given by God are meant to be liberating, meant to set us free – not meant to keep everything in order, not meant to keep us in a right relationship with God, by restricting what we may and may not do.

The Jews had built a magnificent Temple – it was a place that represented God’s presence with his people, and importantly it housed the tablets of stone upon which were inscribed the commandments given by God to Moses. It was a truly magnificent place and reminded the people of God’s special relationship with them.

But rules began to take precedence over the Spirit of the place. Flawless animals had to be sacrificed, and Roman coinage wasn’t allowed. So livestock was sold and money changers provided the Temple currency. Business flourished on the back of religion. And of course everyone got their cut out of the moneychanging and the sale of animals for sacrifice. Such rules and regulations benefit those in power and were nothing to do with loving God and loving your neighbour.

Yet housed in this same Temple were the commandments, given by God so that his people could rightly order their lives. The contrast between the life envisaged by these commandments, a life of love and respect for God and neighbour, and the life being demonstrated by those who were responsible for overseeing the Temple, shocked Jesus.

So Jesus overturns the tables of the moneychangers and throws out those selling the livestock and the birds for sacrifice, challenging those who would bind God’s Law with human rules and traditions, and who couldn’t see that the Law was intended not to restrict but to set free. And if anyone ever tries to tell you about ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ remind them that Jesus mad a whip, and whipped people out of the Temple.

Because Jesus knew that religion – our whole relationship with God – should be life-giving and liberating, not bound up by rules that gave easy opportunities for exploiting people. It should enable a relationship with God based on love and not fear. A relationship with each other based on justice and equality and respect, and not on injustice and inequality and oppression.

Jesus knew that true religion was practised not by slavish obedience to rules and regulations but by keeping the spirit of the commandments – love your God, and love your neighbour.