Sunday, February 09, 2014

On Being "Un-Australian" and "Un-Judaean", or How to Stop Worrying and Love the Law

[From a sermon at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, February 9th 2014 (Epiphany5); Isa 58.1-9a, Ps 112, 1 Cor 2.1-13, Mt 5.13-20]

The issue of being "un-Australian" has recently been a matter of public debate here, particularly regarding the role of the press. While some think our national broadcaster should not run stories that could damage Australia's reputation, others hold to the old-fashioned notion that the role of a free press in a democracy is to keep government accountable, and that the inadequacies of recent press coverage might not concern its reputational impact on us, but its accuracy or lack thereof.

I raise this contemporary example not for its own sake, but for the light that may shed on Jesus as a controversial commentator and political figure in his own day. There were certainly those among his contemporary detractors who regarded Jesus as a "un-Judaean" sort of character, a nuisance and a threat. Of course he did contend with influential leaders, and took stances viewed as treacherous, which ultimately led to his suffering and death as a traitor on the cross.

That event however cannot be read at face value. Few patriots are mere cheerleaders for their nations, and not all those who die as traitors have betrayed their country; consider deaths in Tibet or West Papua in recent years, or in Germany or the Soviet Union at times in the previous century.

Jesus proves in fact to be the true patriot in his own story. Jesus is a loyal and pious Jew who criticises the hypocrisy and croneyism of the contemporary elites, and the alternative leadership too, not however because he rejected Israel or denied Judaism. Jesus is the "loyal opposition".

Such loyal opposition had its precedents in Israel’s history, not least in the prophets themselves - Isaiah castigates Israelites who ostentatiously observed the outward forms of religious fasts, but ignored their ethical and social significance, adopting voluntary hunger for show, while the involuntarily hungry were passed by. This however is not criticism of piety or religiosity, but of hypocrisy. Isaiah’s targets are not the more religious or hyper-conscientiously Israelite, but the inadequately and half-heartedly so.

It is surprisingly common to find Christians repeating the slurs of his ancient opponents, imagining that Jesus was a critic of Judaism itself, or a flouter of the fundamental practices and beliefs contained in the Law of Moses.

The idea that Jesus was either not a Jew, or was opposed to Judaism itself, is the last gasp of Christian anti-semitism, a long and vile tradition that has been a burden to us, and more so to Jews caught up in its consequences. Into the mid or even late 20th century, even theological scholarship tended to put Jesus in the place not of loyal Jewish opposition, but of rejection or at least transcendence of Jewish identity.

Today’s Gospel provides perhaps the strongest statement from Jesus about his commitment to that most basic of Jewish commitments, the Law of Moses:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5:17-20).
The implication is inescapable, if uncomfortable; not only does the law apply, but those who seek the Kingdom of heaven are called through and beyond its requirements, exacting as they were; not less is required of us, but more.

Augustine of Hippo, the great African writer and thinker (354-430), saw this clearly, and pointed out that “Christ never tried to turn Israel away from the Law; but he charged them with being turned away from the Law” - even to the point that Augustine sees the timing of Jesus’ death and resurrection as fulfilling the command for Sabbath rest between the great works of his saving death and triumphant rising (see contra Faustum 16). Jesus is for Augustine the most pious and loyal Israelite of all - the words of the Law, all those letters and strokes of letters, are made flesh in him.

As citizens of that Kingdom of heaven of which Jesus speaks, Christians are caught up in his project, both his great critique of the world we now encounter, and his embodiment of an order, a commonwealth, towards which Israel’s order points.

Doubtless our citizenship will not always be exemplary, and if we measured it only by adherence to rules we would fall short. In making the words of the Law into flesh, Jesus embodies loyalty, piety, and civic duty, both to the Law and to the Kingdom; and even for those of us not under the Law, his allegiance and courage to the kingdom make us unlikely citizens of a great commonwealth of hope and love.

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