Quite rightly we hear a lot about the work of the Christian churches – usually co-operating with each other – to care for our neighbours. At local, national and international levels, you can see in the news media and on the internet countless examples of this joint work. Less well known or understood is the inspiration behind all this work by Christians. Even less well known is what underlies our inspiration. Part of that inspiration is found in a rather modest achievement of the main Christian churches when they established a Common Lectionary. You may not be sure what a lectionary is, unless you are a churchwarden or one of our regular readers. The Common Lectionary is the agreed set of readings that is read in church services over a three year cycle. You may not think it is particularly important until you realise that getting more than a million people in this country each week to think some of the same inspiring thoughts and to re-commit themselves to a different kind of life is something that advertisers can only dream of.
So, the inspiration for Christian people this week is found in these same three readings that we have heard. Let’s start with one small snippet: a little piece of that first reading from Isaiah. It says so much about what it is to be a child of God, to live under God’s rule. Isaiah makes clear that this is not primarily about performing religious acts. He took as his example the religious act of fasting. Today, the Common Lectionary reminds us that we are in the run up to our own forty day fast, the season called Lent. So, listen again to a bit of that first reading. Let’s hear again what Isaiah has to say about God’s view of fasting, and think also about Lent coming up. I promise you, chocolate is not even mentioned.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then as now, this was a bit counter-cultural. This is not “charity begins at home”. This is not about cultivating your personal piety, let alone losing something off your hips or waist. It is about an overriding commitment to care for the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the hungry – for they are our kin. St Paul (this is the Common Lectionary again) offers a warning about our Christian commitment. Most people around you may – probably will – sometimes think you’re mad for identifying with Christianity. After all, we honour and revere an executed supposed criminal, believing him to be more alive now than in his earthly lifetime. We call him Friend, Brother, but also Lord and Son of God. So God’s wisdom is definitely very different to human wisdom. You probably have to experience it to know how wise it is.
This same Jesus took much of his inspiration from Isaiah. Like Isaiah, Jesus also had religious observance in his sights. Again, the Common Lectionary directs us to St Matthew’s take on this. Matthew describes Jesus criticising the most dedicated religious people of his day. Now, to get the full picture, you have to bear in mind that, so far as we can tell, Matthew was living and writing in Judaea, about sixty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. He was living through the aftermath of a catastrophe - the devastation of Jerusalem by a Roman legion. In the course of putting down a Jewish rebellion, Roman forces desecrated and demolished the Temple, the world centre of the Jewish faith.
No more going up to the Temple to present your children to God, no more sacrifices of prayer or animals, no more Temple hymns. The centre had gone: all that was left was what tourists today call The Wailing Wall where Jews, if they are able to get there, still go to pray. The continuation of the Jewish religion from then on had to depend entirely on the quality of the teaching and worship in the synagogues. In Judaea, that responsibility was carried out by a strict, orthodox religious group called Pharisees. St Paul was just such a person. He was a Pharisee, an orthodox Jew with a strict religious upbringing, schooled from an early age in the scriptures, in religious observance in the home, plus what we would call a separatist attitude to non-Jews. So, for example, a Pharisee could not go into a gentile house nor eat with a gentile person. This is not to say that he imagined himself superior to those people, but he certainly felt and observed difference at every turn.
Now the Pharisees had their critics. One of those was the author of St Matthew’s gospel. You may have noticed that each of the four gospels has its own keynotes, its own atmosphere, its biases even. To understand Matthew’s distinctive take on the story of Jesus, you need to take into account that he was writing in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction, and that not everyone was happy with the Pharisees’ leadership of the synagogues.
Matthew was a Jew of course, but evidently not a Pharisee. You might say he had it in for Pharisees. We can never know how many sayings of Jesus were critical of Pharisees, but, if you want to find those criticisms, look in Matthew’s gospel rather than Mark, Luke or John. In Matthew’s account, Jesus was not critical of the Pharisees’ undoubted virtue or religious devotion. Rather, Jesus believed they had missed the point. As he put it, you have salt to bring out the flavour of food: if the salt is no longer salty, you chuck it out. Jesus wanted Pharisees to point their congregations to what Isaiah had preached hundreds of years earlier. He did not criticise their efforts to live good lives. But he demanded of them and of his followers, of citizens under God’s rule, that their – and our - right living should exceed the demands of religion. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets;” he said “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”
Let me paraphrase Isaiah again, thinking perhaps of the people of Homs or of the poverty in our own towns and villages:
We are called to unravel the bonds of injustice,
to undo the straps of what enslaves us,
to set free the oppressed,
…… to share our bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into our houses;
when we see the ragged and wretched, to clothe them,
and not to hide ourselves from our own flesh and blood.
Lent is coming. It’s an Old English word for “spring”, so let’s hope it comes soon, and with it the rebirth of our commitment to God’s rule and our part in it. That could make more difference than giving up chocolate: in fact, it is already changing God’s world.