The Body of Moses and the Body of Christ (sermon)
Texts: 1 Corinthian 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21
In a recent item in the New Yorker David Remnick described the rise of the new right in Israel… What troubled me most was the purported increase in public display of a thinly veiled racism of a certain kind. The claims that there is no such thing as a Palestinian… they are all ‘arabs’ defined purely by their hatred of Israel and not to be trusted. We don’t need too long a memory to recall what happens once it becomes accepted that certain kinds of people don’t really have human rights – no place in the land.
Another piece I read this week was an essay by the famous novelist and thinker Marilynne Robinson. It’s a kind of history of an idea – the idea of “Moses”, or ‘the law of Moses’. She makes a defense of the ‘law of Moses’
The point that she is very aware of is that ‘the law of Moses’ has, in so much of our history been treated as a problem, something Jesus got rid of, something bound up with the evil God of the Old Testament who orders genocide of other races and so on… a long history which, if many protestant sermons are to be believed, could be crudely summarized as Old Testament bad, New Testament good.
I’m not going to try to unravel all that today. It’s just much more complicated than that. Instead let me quote some of Robinson’s summary of the laws of Moses.
The laws of Moses assume that the land is God’s, that the Hebrews are strangers and sojourners there who cannot really own it but who enjoy it at God’s pleasure (Leviticus 25:23). The land is apportioned to the tribes, excepting the priestly Levites. It can be sold (the assumption seems to be that this would be done under pressure of debt or poverty) but a kinsman has the right to buy it back, that is, redeem it, and restore it to its owner. In any case, in every fiftieth year the lands are restored to the tribes and households to whom they were first given. Every seventh year Hebrew slaves are freed, each taking with him or her enough of the master’s goods to “furnish him liberally” (Deuteronomy 15:14; all quotations are from the Revised Standard Version). In these years also all debts are to be forgiven. Obviously these laws would have the effect of preventing accumulation of wealth and preventing as well the emergence of a caste of people who are permanently dispossessed. Furthermore, in every seventh year the land is to have a Sabbath, to lie fallow…
It’s a kind of resting time for the land and a free for all, especially the poor. There are even special rules about not harvesting the corners of the field and always leaving enough for the poor – those disadvantaged for a range of reasons. Deuteronomy says:
“It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:21–22).
Robinson goes on to note that the word “commandment” is not there in Hebrew. In the Hebrew the 10 Commandments are just the 10 Words and they are as much promises as they are rules. So in this vision of society, this strange economy, we call the Law of Moses we might say the promise is made ‘you will not steal’ (not must). And Robinson continues, it could just as well read “you will not be stolen from”. Why? Two reasons: first because:
“the poor are given the right to take what would elsewhere have been someone else’s property, and second because they are sheltered from the extreme of desperation that drives the needy to theft.”
How different is that from the concept of private property which so structures our life?
The point is that we have forgotten what the Law of Moses really is. The point is, that regardless of the extent to which this vision was ever realized in history (and it is hard to tell), it represents an extraordinary economic and political vision.
Robinson notes that:
“…no conditions limit God’s largesse toward the poor. They need not be pious, or Jewish, or worthy, or conspicuously in need, or intent on removing themselves from their condition of dependency. The Bible never considers the poor otherwise than with tender respect, and this is fully as true when the speaker is “the Jewish God” as it is when the speaker is Jesus. What laws could be more full of compassion than these?”
Robinson asks “By what standard but their own could Israel have been considered ungrateful or rebellious or corrupt?” There was no comparable economic and political vision in the ancient world.
That’s the background we need to remember when Jesus stands up in the Synagogue in Nazareth and reads from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
Jesus is talking about the year of Jubilee, the year when debts are forgiven and those who have been empoverished are restored. He is standing up to announce the fulfillment of the Law of Moses in its broadest sense.
Importantly he interprets this announcement by what he doesn’t say as well as by what he does say. He stops the reading mid-sentence… he doesn’t quote the last section of Isaiah which continues ‘and the day of the vengeance of our God.’ It is the day of the Lord’s favour but not of God’s vengeance against the nations and the gentiles. Am I reading too much into the silence here? I don’t think so… because the next thing Jesus does is remind his listeners of stories in which the word of God extended beyond the people of this Law of Moses to the ‘nations’, the gentiles on whom his audience hope God will seek vengeance. Jesus tells of God’s compassionate involvement with the outsiders, the sojourners, to those who today might, in our time, be called Palestinians.
In our Epistle reading Paul doesn’t mention Moses. He doesn’t, talk of a Kingdom (as Jesus does). Instead he does something very similar. He talks of a body (perhaps like Aristotle talked of the body politic). And the standards by which this body is judged have to do with how it treats its weakest members.
“The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable member are treated with greater respect, whereas our respectable members do not need this. But God has arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
Another astonishing political and economic vision! Perhaps there’s a connection we have forgotten? The body of Moses and the body of Christ!
Let me digress briefly… reading Ian Harris again this week I am reminded that every second time he gets an opinion piece in the ODT he tries to persuade us that although God existence is an outdated idea, this doesn’t matter. What does matter, according to Harris, is whether we can live with the symbolism of God… as if like the ancient pagans we might create our own symbols and then bow down and worship them, only to discover that like the idols of stone and wood of the ancient world they are merely artifacts of our own desires, our hopes and fears in visual form, and in the end we are worshipping ourselves. But my main problem with Harris’s articles is not his amalgamation of modern atheism and a subtle form of idolatry. That’s certainly a problem. But his assumption that Christianity stands and falls with the idea of God. That we are in the business of persuading people that God exists. And if we can’t do that, then we can make do with the idea of God as a symbol of our values. I want to suggest that he’s worrying about the wrong issue. Of course Christians believe that God actually exists, and is not merely some useful symbol. But that’s not the distinctive characteristic of Christian faith. There are lots of people out there who believe in God and are not Christians. Not just the Abrahamic religions, but millions of people, especially baby boomers, who say ‘I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.’
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Christians are people who follow Jesus, rather than merely believers in a God of some kind. Our God is quite specific. So for us our faith is cast into question not just by the problem of whether there is a God or not, but by the more pointed question… Is there a body of Christ? Does God in Jesus Christ make a difference to the human race?… Is there a community which gives greatest dignity to the least? Which loves its enemies? Has the law of Moses really found its fulfillment? Are we a part of that? That’s the difficult question!