3rd Sunday before Lent
Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18;
1 Corinthians 3.10-11, 16-end;
SITTING recently in one of those open cafés within a large Midlands railway station, someone came up to me and asked, literally, for a word — an English one that I use or like, and a photo. How odd!
She turned out to be a French student who was doing a work-experience project in advertising and identity, while improving her skills in colloquial English.
The question of identity is something that touches us deeply. Also that day there were people in the station who had been on a demonstration in Luton. They were from the English Defence League (EDL), and their protest had been against what they describe as the stranglehold that militant Islam has on British Muslims.
Identity was a vital issue here. The EDL stands for a Britain characterised by pride in our armed forces as emblematic of the Crown, and our status as a constitutional monarchy. Its supporters avoid reference to Christian faith, however, other than the flag of St George and the crusader motto, “In this sign conquer” — a reference to the cross of Jesus Christ.
Unease with the formative influence of religion is also evident in what the EDL says about being a Muslim in Britain today. Muslims must make their faith “relevant to the needs of the modern world . . . and achieve nothing short of an Islamic revolution”.
What emerges from this protest movement is a curious rejection of human identity that finds its self-understanding in the influence of belief in God. This diminution of our spiritual capacity can leave us floundering when asked about who we are. The EDL, for example, speaks assertively about our culture, laws, traditions, and values. But it has little to say about what these are, or about the purpose and quality of being human.
Coincidentally, a speech by David Cameron, delivered in Munich on the same weekend as the EDL demonstration, called for a rejection of any automatic identification between Muslims and terrorists (News, Leader comment, Media, 11 February). That is to be welcomed. But, although the Prime Minister welcomed freedom of worship as indicative of a civilised society, his promotion of muscular liberalism gave little indication of what forms the human soul.
Today’s readings also address the question of identity. In particular, they tackle what so many people find it difficult to face today: how faith in God relates to belief about humanity.
In the holiness code in Leviticus, we find some essential indications about human dignity and how it is to be respected in practical terms. The poor, the alien, the labourer, and those with physical disabilities are all to receive protection; family life is to have a high priority, as is love of neighbour and community.
These injunctions carry with them no penalty for failure in observation, but a more profound motive for obedience to them: “I am the Lord your God.” They imply an indissoluble link between the nature of God and how we live our life on earth. In response to the holiness and the supreme glory of God, there is required of us a way of relating to each other which exemplifies the honouring of God in all that God has made.
This exploration of identity goes even deeper in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks to the disciples, but let us also remember the context. He is on the mountain; he has seen the crowds who have followed him from Galilee, but they are not with him. Jesus sits and teaches the disciples alone.
The imagery is drawn from the Old Testament. Mountains are where the revelations of God happen. When seen or imagined in worship, God is seated — enthroned. Most importantly of all, perhaps, Jesus speaks to the disciples directly in the first person, contrasting his own authoritative statement with what the law and the prophets stated in an earlier dispensation that now finds fulfilment in a new law. “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .”
Matthew is making a theological statement about the identity of Jesus. Jesus speaks as God, who conversed with Moses on the mountain, who delivered the law in tablets of stone, and who is enthroned upon the praises of Israel. He is one with the God of glory, whom Isaiah sees seated upon his throne, high and lifted up (Isaiah 6.1).
This consonance between Old and New Testament visions of the glory of God may bring us to our knees in adoration. But the Swiss theologian Karl Barth sees to the heart of the matter outlined in today’s Gospel, when he observes that “God’s glory is the indwelling of his divine being, which as such shines out from him, which overflows in its richness, which in its superabundance is not satisfied with itself but communicates itself.”
The conclusion of today’s Gospel points us to glory as the self-communicating quality of God. When Jesus says: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5.48 KJV), he is re-laying the foundation of human identity. This transcends the narrow boundaries that protest-groups such as the EDL seek to protect. Within the Christian tradition of this land, there has been a much richer understanding of what we wish to protect: the dignity of every man, woman, and child, because we are made in the image of God.
The glory of godly perfection lies at the heart of our destiny, and is the key to our dignity. Let us protest that nothing less will do.
Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18;
1The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 2Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. 9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God. 11You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. 12And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD. 13 You shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until morning. 14You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. 15You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour. 16You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am the LORD. 17You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.
1 Corinthians 3.10-11, 16-end
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.
16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. 18 Do not deceive yourselves. If any of you think you are wise by the standards of this age, you should become “fools” so that you may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness”; 20 and again, “The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21 So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’[h] 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.