St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Epiphany VI 2014 Sermon
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Jim Campbell

Our readings today talk to us about law, using various terms—commandments, decrees, ordinances, precepts, and statutes.  Laws are something we deal with as part of our everyday lives, whether formal ones as part of our form of government, or ones we take on ourselves as part of our operating code to live by (such as social, moral, ethical, and religious laws). 
 
Law is defined as an official set of rules governing the behavior of individuals in society.  Organized, written law has been a part of human society for at much as 5000 years, dating back to at least the ancient Egyptians around 3000BC.  They had a civil law based on tradition, social equality, and impartially.  In the 22nd century BC, the Sumerians formulated the first law code.  Around 1790BC Hammurabi further developed the Babylonian law by codifying it and inscribing it on 12 stone tablets 8' tall and placing copies of it around for the public to see.  A carving at the top of the tablets portrays Hammurabi receiving the laws from the god Shamash or possibly Marduk, and says that Hammurabi was chosen by the gods of his people to bring the laws to them.  (A fairly intact artifact of this stone set of laws was found in Persia in 1901.) 
 
From about the 8th century BC the ancient Greeks were the first society based on broad inclusion of all citizens, including women and slaves, and their laws contained major innovations in the development of democracy.  Ancient India, China, and Japan had their own forms of law, each based on their own religious traditions.  Organized codified law has continued to develop over the centuries—from the Romans, to Germanic and Anglo-Saxon law, the Magna Carta, to more modern forms of law such as the Napoleonic Code, and English Common Law, to become the various forms of law used today in the United States and most civilized countries of the world.  We also have theocratic countries with their own forms of law, such as Islamic Sharia law.
 
There is also Jewish law, called the Law of Moses, as handed down to Moses by God as described in the Bible in immense detail in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  This code of Mosaic Law (all 613 laws) was first written down and referred to in the rest of the Old Testament as much as 600-700 years after they were first given to Moses (around 1600 to 1400BC?).  This Law of Moses is distinguished from other legal codes in the ancient Near East (such as Hammurabic Law) by its reference to offenses against a deity rather than against society and its kings.  However the influences of these ancient Near Eastern legal traditions on the Law of Moses is recognized and well documented.
 
I'm paraphrasing from that universal source of info—Wikipedia:  “An extremely vital part of the Law Of Moses is The Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue, a set of biblical principles relating to ethics and worship, which play a fundamental role in Judaism and Christianity. They include instructions to worship only God and to keep the sabbath, and prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, theft,dishonesty, and adultery. Different religious groups follow slightly different traditions for interpreting and numbering them.
 
The Ten Commandments concern matters of fundamental importance in both Judaism and Christianity: the greatest obligation (to worship only God), the greatest injury to a person (murder), the greatest injury to family bonds (adultery), the greatest injury to commerce and law (bearing false witness), the greatest inter-generational obligation (honor to parents), the greatest obligation to community (truthfulness), and the greatest injury to moveable property (theft).
 
The Ten Commandments are written to reflect their role as a summary of fundamental principles.  They are not as explicit or detailed as rules or many other biblical laws, because they provide guiding principles that apply universally.  They do not specify punishments for their violation; their precise use and consequences must be worked out.
 
Christians believe the Ten Commandments have divine authority and continue to be valid, though they have different interpretations and uses of them.  Through most of Christian history, the decalogue has been considered a summary of God's law and standard of behavior, and has been central to Christian life, piety, and worship. 
 
In Roman Catholicism, Jesus freed Christians from Jewish religious law, but not from their obligation to keep the Ten Commandments.  They are to the moral order what the creation story is to the natural order.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Commandments are considered essential for spiritual good health and growth, and serve as the basis for social justice.
 
The Eastern Orthodox Church holds its moral truths to be chiefly contained in the Ten Commandments.  A confession begins with the Confessor reciting the Ten Commandments and asking the penitent which of them he has broken.
 
Even after rejecting Roman Catholic moral theology, giving less importance to biblical law in order to better hear and be moved by the gospel, early Protestant theologians still took the Ten Commandments to be the starting point of Christian moral life.  Different versions of Christianity have varied in how they have translated the bare principles into the specifics that make up a full Christian ethic.  Where Catholicism emphasizes taking action to fulfill the Ten Commandments, Protestantism uses the Ten Commandments for two purposes: to outline the Christian life to each person, and to make each person realize, through their failure to live that life, that they lack the ability to do it on their own.”
 
Back to today's readings--we are in the third of four weeks of lectionary Gospel readings from the first part of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, as presented in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 5.  In today's reading we hear once more about Jesus telling his followers and the crowds that “you have heard it said, but I'm telling you once again!”  Jesus is not identifying some new laws to follow, but is explaining the real intent, and what to really do about, the existing Jewish laws.  Corby, in our Bible study this week (saying what we all probably think!), complained that, in applying these readings to us today, we keep getting beaten over the head that we must be better than even the scribes and Pharisees in following the Law, and that we must seemingly do extreme things to ourselves if we are unable to measure up to following God's laws—which realistically we are not able to do!
 
So, what can we do?  To me these readings of the Sermon on the Mount and all the Mosaic Law, even the Ten Commandments, can be simplified.  The readings give these extreme examples to get us to focus later on what Jesus said is the most important way to live—being his disciples using what we know about God and his Grace—and living without legalism in our heads so much as with love in our hearts to  carry out sincere faith and action.  Later in Matthew 22, Jesus gives us the simple formula: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  (To me that last statement is very telling!)  In his epistle to the Romans, Paul mentioned five of the Ten Commandments and associated them with the neighborly love commandment: “Owe no man anything, but to love one another.  For he that loves another has fulfilled the law.”
 
To close, I refer you again to our Collect for you, but let's think about it using the two great commandments instead of maybe the ten or 613 Jewish laws or whatever baggage you want to place on yourselves.  “O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”
 

Another way of looking at the Ten Commandments, from our native American friends--

 

THE TEN NATIVE AMERICAN COMMANDMENTS

1. Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect.

2. Remain close to the Great Spirit, in all that you do.

3. Show great respect for your fellow beings. (Especially Respect yourself)

4. Work together for the benefit of all Mankind.

5. Give assistance and kindness wherever needed.

6. Do what you know to be right.  (But be careful not to fall into self-righteousness)

7. Look after the well being of mind and body.

8. Dedicate a share of your efforts to the greater good.

9. Be truthful and honest at all times.  (Especially be truthful and honest with your self)

10. Take full responsibility for your actions.

 
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