Readings Joshua 14.6–14, Matthew 12.1–21
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
If sixty is the new forty, tonight’s Old Testament reading is a text for our times. Caleb is in his eighties, and says he has as much oomph as when he was half that age. He does not devote his venerable energies to strenuous walks and Pilates, however, but to combat and invasion. Here he and Joshua carve up the promised land of Canaan for the tribes of Israel, in a scene that still has resonance for those who mount a theological rationale for the present state of Israel: this land is our land because God made it over to us millennia ago.
This picture of two men calmly carving up other peoples’ homelands is disquieting. It reminds me of a moment in Churchill’s memoirs at a Moscow conference with Stalin in 1944. Over dinner, Churchill slid across the table a piece of paper on which he proposed the relative proportions of influence the West and the Soviet Union would have in Hungary, Romania, Greece, and other countries in southeastern Europe. Stalin scrawled a big fat tick on it pushed it back. Thus over Georgian champagne and beluga caviar two powerful men traded the fates of millions; for some of them, as for the Canaanites, the consequences would be terrible. Churchill, fearing how this might look, suggested the paper be burnt. ‘No,’ said an unruffled Stalin, ‘you keep it.’ He didn’t think that mere people mattered in this, and he was wasn’t concerned if people were seen not to matter. He it was, of course, who said that single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic.
This passage in the book of Joshua marks one of Israel’s occasional imperial moments. For much of their story they are either threatened by or subjects of a foreign imperial power: Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and finally Roman, the empire that casts its shadow over the New Testament. So when we get to the New Testament reading, from Matthew’s gospel, we are in a quite different world. The debate here is not over geopolitics but personal conduct, how to interpret the Jewish law on what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath.
This piece of provincial preciousness, as it might sound to a Roman, throws up a stark contrast between Jewish society and that of their pagan overlords. Both value rest and refreshment, but for the Romans it is a commodity you buy, if you can afford slaves to work for you. For the Jews it is a right; or, better, a duty; or – better still – a response to the grace of God in rescuing them all from slavery in Egypt. And therefore it’s for everyone, rich and poor: all are commanded to rest on the seventh day, even though business might suffer. The Sabbath is one of history’s most powerful affirmations that people matter more than things.
Why, then, do Jesus’ disciples break the rule of no work on the Sabbath? That’s what Jesus’ religious opponents ask when they see his people doing do some DIY harvesting as they walk through the fields. ‘Because they’re hungry!’ Jesus retorts and provocatively compares himself and his disciples to David the fugitive king and his hungry men, who also broke regulations when on the run from king Saul. In the synagogue Jesus is asked, ‘Is it lawful to cure on the Sabbath?’ and asks in turn, ‘Which of you would leave your sheep in a ditch just because it was the Sabbath? And you are more valuable than sheep.’ People matter more than things; and if the law is found to be above the welfare of people then it must yield.
Sensible stuff, but what authority has Jesus to say these things? He is a freelance rabbi – there are plenty of those around – and he shows he can interpret the law as nimbly as any, but Matthew says he does more. He claims, ‘The son of man is lord of the Sabbath.’ Who is this son of man? In Jesus’ Aramaic language the phrase might refer to a typical person, like ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’, or ‘son of Adam’ and ‘daughter of Eve’ in the Narnia books, which describe any human being, male or female. More likely, though, the phrase refers to Jesus himself, identifying him with the heavenly figure in the book of Daniel, ‘one like a son of man’, to whom God gives highest authority (Daniel 7.13-14). Here is someone with the clout not just to interpret the rules but to change them.
Two different worlds, both of the them very different from ours, in which the age of traditional empires has faded somewhat. True, the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China look pretty imperial, and there can be imperial tinges to the actions of the US and NATO, and of the European Union, for instance in the way it goes about its trade agreements. Africa and the Indian subcontinent, on the other hand, are in the post-imperial phase, if not the phase beyond that. What we do have, though, are other types of supra-national entity that straddle nations and even continents, and can wield power beyond that of individual nation states. The topical face of this is Starbucks, with its entirely legal if ethically questionable practice of exporting of profits to countries where the tax regime is more to its taste. The question of people mattering more than things is not irrelevant here.
And what of the Sabbath? In Israel on a Saturday or the Western Isles on a Sunday it still has bite, but here it has largely gone. I think I was among those that harrumphed when Sunday trading laws were relaxed, but now I find it as much a boon as anyone to be able to get a pint of milk on a Sunday afternoon. Even so, cranking the handle of round-the-clock capitalism has its human cost, especially in a slump, when you have to crank harder and longer. In days like these, asserting Jesus’ conviction that people matter more than things might lead in the other direction, towards re-establishing the Sabbath, if not the old-fashioned Sabbath day then the Sabbath principle, a public and private dedication to preserve rest as part of every working week, because people matter more than things.
And it’s not just empires and transnational corporations under judgment. There are institutions everywhere – big ones, small ones, even benign ones – that hold so tight to their regulations that they lose their grip on what matters most. On Friday night someone told me how, years ago, her daughter had lost a child at birth, and the hospital’s Church of England chaplain refused to baptize the baby because it was dead: technically correct, pastorally calamitous and therefore theologically dead wrong. There was, thank God, a United Reformed Church minister who knew that people matter more than things and offered to pour the water of Christian meaning on that new life cut short.
Here, then, is a question for the coming week: what systems are currently in danger of being exalted over the needs of real human beings in your country, your place of work, your church, your family? And what might it mean for the son of man to be master of them? Our guide here might be the St Louis taxi driver described by Joseph Fletcher in the foreword to Situation Ethics, an influential book he wrote in the wicked 1960s.
A friend of mine arrived in St Louis just as a presidential campaign was ending, and the cab driver, not being above the battle, volunteered his testimony. ‘I and my father and grandfather before me, and their fathers, have always been straight-ticket Republicans.’ ‘Ah,’ said my friend, who is himself a Republican, ‘I take it that means you will vote for Senator So-and-So.’ ‘No,’ said the driver, ‘there are times when a man has to push his principles aside and do the right thing.’
People matter more than things For this and other insights into this passage I have drawn on Tom Wright’s Matthew for Everyone, Part 1, SPCK, 2002, pages 129-131.
Situation Ethics, Joseph Fletcher, SCM, British edition 1966, page 13.