If I were to ask you how many commandments there are in the Bible, what would you say?
You might say ten, the ten commandments given by God to Moses, inscribed on stone tablets - thou shalt not kill, the shalt not steal, and the others. Maybe eleven as, remember the choir sang in the introit today about a ‘a new commandment’ given to us, to love one another. But there are other commandments too, other laws, other rules - and if you count them all up, even just in the first five books of the Old Testament, there are 613 in all. 248 positive ones, saying ‘do this’ and 365 negative ones, saying ‘don’t do that.’
There are some in there that make perfect sense to us today, like 'Don’t cheat people by using false measures of length or weight,' ‘Pay the workers you hire on time,’ ‘Return stolen property to its owner.’ There’s one that corporate lawyers today probably still write into their contracts: ‘When you build a new house, be sure to put a railing round the edge of the roof.
Then you won’t be responsible if someone falls off.’ That’s what it says. Others, well, let’s say they’re a bit more open to interpretation.
‘Don’t sell your brother as a slave to strangers.’ Does that mean you can sell him to people you know? ‘Do not tattoo yourself,’ which presumably means you can get someone to do it for you? Many, a great many of these rules and laws are very much of their time, of course, and it’s difficult for us in western society in the 21st century to connect with them.
So many refer to dietary rules, to sacrificial rites, they speak of slaves and certain sexual practices.
So many are so far removed from us, it’s hard to relate to them.
It could be that a lot of the divisions that exist in the church today, and a lot of the divisions between those who go to church and those who don’t, the divisions come from picking and choosing which of the laws might be applicable to us these days and which might not be.
But I’m not going to get into whether or not all of these laws, these commandments, as they appear in Scripture, have to form the rules by which we live our lives. Our psalm this morning said, ‘Happy is the person who honours the Lord, who takes pleasure in obeying his commands,’ but, as I say, some don’t exactly resonate with ourselves and the world we live in.
That’s a whole different sermon for another time. Instead, I want to look at what Jesus said, and I’m paraphrasing him here, that it’s not so much about just obeying rules, it’s about how you obey them, and about remembering that not all commandments are written down.
It’s true, though, that we live by rules, by laws, isn’t it? This morning, without even thinking about it, we’ve all been obeying the law. When I was driving over here this morning I had my seatbelt on, I kept to the speed limit, I stopped at every red light. Actually, no I didn’t - there aren’t any traffic lights between here and where I live, that’s just occurred to me. If you drove here, I’m sure you did the same, obeyed the rules of the road. If you walked here, I’m sure you looked both ways before crossing the road, even though that’s more of an unwritten rule. And when you come to think about it, we don’t just live by rules, we live by unwritten rules too. Like you should never take the last biscuit on a plate when someone offers it to you.
The reason they’re offering it is because they want you to say no so they can have it. If someone bumps into you on the street, you always have to apologise even though it was them who bumped into you. When you’re on a bus or a train, you can only take the seat beside a stranger as a last resort. When it starts to get dark early in the autumn, at least once you’ve got to say, ‘I can’t believe how dark it’s getting’ as if it didn’t happen every year. When you go to church every Sunday, you should always sit in the same place.
Unwritten rules. I think what Jesus could be telling us in the passage I read a few moments ago is that the law is the law, but it’s not enough just to obey the rules, but to think of the unwritten rules as well. ‘You will be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven only if you are more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.' ‘More faithful’ than the teachers of the Law?
I don’t know if any of you watched the American Football Superbowl last Sunday - no, me neither, it was on far too late for me. Anyway, in American Football the crucial player is the quarterback - it’s him that all the game revolves around really, he makes the plays, throws the passes, a good quarterback makes all the difference. But there’s such a thing as an armchair quarterback too, and that’s the man - or woman, of course - who sits at home watching on the TV and thinks they could do better. Armchair quarterbacks know the rules, better than the players sometimes, they know exactly what to do and when to do it, only they’re never going to get a chance to put all their knowledge into practice. They just talk a good game. And I think Jesus is getting a bit of a dig in when he says we have to be more faithful than the teachers of the Law. He’s saying the teachers don’t have all the answers, and not all answers are in the Law. He’s saying don’t just talk a good game, like an armchair quarterback, you’ve got to play it for real. In Jesus’ time, no-one lived more righteous lives than the teachers and the Pharisees. They obeyed the law to the letter, they followed every dietary law, every sacrificial law they could find.
They were good at obeying the law, but they had a problem. They were more worried about what they could do or not do, about what they could eat or not eat, than what was in their hearts. ‘It’s not what goes into a person’s mouth that makes him unclean,’ said Jesus, ‘It’s what comes out of it.’ Being more faithful than the teachers could be seen as taking the Law, which, after all, is just words on paper, just the instruction manual, and actually living the spirit of it, day by day.
I think that’s the unwritten part. Putting it into practice. Bringing it to completion. Doing what God requires. That’s the emphasis Jesus is making here, I think, he isn’t talking about being better at obeying rules, but being better at applying them, not to do away with the Law but to make it personal again for everyone.
And it was just before speaking about the Law that Jesus made it entirely personal, comparing his followers - and that’s us, too - to salt and light. ‘You are like salt for the whole human race,’ he says. ‘You are like light for the whole world.’
Now we all know now that too much salt isn’t good for you. But in the right quantities, salt seasons, it adds flavour, it brings and influence to bear on our food. By comparing us to salt, I think Jesus is saying our influence should affect the lives of the people around us. Living within the letter of the law isn’t sufficient, that just makes us like the teachers and the Pharisees, we should be taking it out into the world to season it, to add flavour to it.
But that doesn’t have to mean making grand gestures, doesn’t mean shouting from the rooftops. Salt changes things, but it changes things in a small way - a little salt can flavour a big pot of soup. A little of our salt can flavour a whole church, a whole neighbourhood, a whole community.
And to be like salt, we don’t have to do spectacular things. To be like salt, we don’t have to be successful in all areas of our lives. To be like salt, we just have to influence our wee corner of the world, give it flavour. Encourage those around us, tell them about what it is that keeps us coming here every Sunday, tell them of all that the church has done for us, and what it continues to do. And if we don’t?
Well, salt that’s still in the salt cellar is not much use to anyone. It’s like that with light. ‘You are like light for the whole world.’ Light can be many things - it can be there to guide us, like the torch I was playing with earlier on, it can be something to attract attention, like a welcoming window in the dark, it can be a warning, like a lighthouse.
But what light always is, is visible. To be like light, we have to be visible too. To be like light, we have to shine at every opportunity. To be really like light, we can’t keep it to ourselves. You don’t cover a light with a bowl, you can’t conceal a lit-up city on a hill. You know, it’s often thought that religious faith is a purely personal thing; keeping it between ourselves and our God. And it’s true, our faith is personal.
It needs a personal decision by us, as to whether we believe or we don’t.
But as believers, we do well to remember that Jesus told us that we’re not supposed to keep it to ourselves, we’re not just to live by the letter of the law, like the teachers and the Pharisees did, ticking the boxes that make us a good believer. ‘Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do.’ It’s not a request, it's an imperative, it’s a must.
Your light must shine. And to shine properly, well, we’ve got to share.
Because what good does it do if we’re not going to share that light we have that’s shining in the world’s darkness? If we don’t share our faith? If we just tick off all the reasons that we think make us a good person, according to the rules, the laws, the commandments that we read in the Bible just so we can feel more comfortable or so we can feel superior to other people, - the teachers and the Pharisees were good at that - well, it doesn’t really amount to an awful lot, does it?
We might be living in the light, but by not sharing it, I don’t think we’re letting it shine the way we should.
And when it all comes down to it, what have we got to lose?
Sharing our light doesn’t diminish us, does it? If we light someone else’s candle from ours, our candle won’t get any dimmer, but the room will be twice as bright.