Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Both readings this morning – St Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome and Jesus’ to the crowd in Matthew’s Gospel – are full of a quality which is central to our faith, but which I think we often entirely fail to recognise or appreciate: the quality of paradox.
The situation in which St. Paul finds himself, of being unable to do what he knows is right, is one that most people have experienced at some time. It’s a sort of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ syndrome, whereby we know what is good, and even desire it, but nonetheless remain unable to put it into practice. This is evidently the problem with the law for Paul. The law can give knowledge of what is good; indeed, it may be good in itself. However, the law cannot overcome the power of what he calls ‘sin’ sufficiently to motivate a person to do what is good. Consequently, it is unable, in itself, to make anyone good. For Paul, it is Jesus who resolves the split personality issue by enabling him to do the good he really wants to do, thus enabling him to be true to himself.
The passage from Matthew makes it clear nothing is good enough for some people. Neither the sober asceticism of John the Baptist nor the feasting of Jesus appeals to them, and all they can do is criticise. The problem is that they are too set in their own self-righteous, religious ways to be able to recognise the things of God which present themselves in other ways. This is a dangerous state to be in, because it puts reverence for the forms of religion in the place of a real understanding of, and response to, the essence of the religious message. But those who are not bound by this preoccupation with form can hear and respond to the content of the message, however and wherever it comes to them. Thus it is that the things of God are hidden from the supposed ‘wise’, the religious professionals who observe every letter of the law, but entirely miss its spirit. Instead, they are revealed to the ‘simple’, those who see the law not as end in itself, but who are willing to take imaginative leaps of faith in recovering its real heart. The same paradox is continued in Jesus’ saying about his ‘easy yoke’. A yoke is a wooden crosspiece put across the backs of a pair of animals for the carrying of heavy loads. Here, instead of the onerous, ill-fitting, legalistic, religious rulebook sort of yoke, which can too often ignore basic humanity, he says instead, Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. He says this yoke is easy, and the burden is light, though that’s not the same as saying the Jesus way is an easy option, as he himself found out. In fact, the paradox here is that it is in many ways easier to choose the legalistic option. It can feel so much safer, more clear-cut, with less room for grey areas. It can make you understand why religious certainty appeals to some people. But, as we all know, religious certainty can itself be quite dangerous….
In short, the underlying point of both readings seems to be that the law and the outward forms, rules and regulations of religion have their limitations, particularly if they prevent people from following the example of Jesus. As so often happens in the Gospels, the religious professionals – described ironically as the adult, the wise and the intelligent – seem to have got it wrong. It is the ‘infants’, the children, the simple, who are described as having a greater grasp of what Jesus is about. There’s another paradox.
I can’t help thinking there must be many people, inside and outside Christian churches today, whose faith, or search for faith, is shot through with unresolved questions. Perhaps one of them is what may be seen as the gulf between the credal statements of religious institutions and the realities of everyday life. Religious institutions have too often been associated with the stifling legalism of the rule book: do it our way and your salvation is assured. Indeed, this, for some people, may be part of the appeal. It can sometimes be easier to be told what to think and do, rather than take risks and use the freedom you have to discern your own way through.
The paradox here is about the nature of authority. Although he was eventually to pay for it with his life, Jesus asks questions of and quite often opposes a rigid adherence to the apparently immutable laws of his own religious institution. While the Gospel writers tell us that Jesus taught with authority, he often tells his critics – not least the religious professionals – that they’ve got God and the law wrong, to the extent that they ask, What is this? A new teaching – with authority?
A writer called John Fenton examines this issue in his book, What was Jesus’ Message? He identifies two contrasting examples of ‘teaching with authority’. A teacher can say, I’m an authority on this, that or the other. I’ve got degrees, I’ve written books. Therefore I’m to be believed, and you should take my advice and do what I say. Write it all down! Or a teacher can say, Look at the matter for yourself. Explore this subject from every angle. Examine what’s known so far. Here are some places to look. Find out what you can. Then draw out the deeper meanings for yourself. The first example is a false authority. It enslaves the learner to the teacher and disengages them from the subject. The second example is genuine authority. It frees the learner to be inspired and to discern. It encourages a personal ownership. I reckon Jesus’ authority was of this second kind. He never says, I’m a great teacher, prophet, Messiah, therefore my teaching has authority. His authority wasn’t based on proclaiming himself. And because this kind of authority leaves open the possibility for us to enlarge our knowledge beyond what is currently understood, there’s no place for static dogma, or for assertions of infallibility. That the idea of infallibility was alien to Jesus’ teaching is evident by the way he taught – in parables. Parables convey their meaning by using metaphor, allegory and symbolism. They don’t present the Kingdom of God by means of incontrovertible definition, but through story, inviting us to ponder the mystery and draw our own conclusions. We might conclude the church has most risked misinterpreting the nature of authority when it has tried to devise clear, unmistakeable and infallible rules to impose on its members.
But whenever the church tries to do that, it runs the risk of ceasing to point to the God Christians encounter in Jesus, pointing instead to itself, or to a god of its own ideology. The idea of infallibility, scriptural, doctrinal or pastoral, is problematic. The whole idea of Christian people telling other Christian people what they should and shouldn’t believe and do is out of place, and contrary to the example of authority given by Jesus. Infallibility eliminates the opportunity for faith, and stifles our exploration into the mystery of God. But can a faith which avoids infallibility, dismisses fundamentalism, and openly acknowledges the blurred nature of its own vision command our loyalty? My answer, for what it’s worth, is a resounding ‘yes’. I’d even go as far as to say that it is only such a faith which can rightly claim our allegiance. As a former Professor of Divinity at Oxford, Maurice Wiles, once wrote, ‘It is only this sort of faith which is pointing us to the true mystery of God, and not enrolling us in the service of some lesser god of its own invention’.