Rewriting the ethics of Christ
Ordinary Sunday 6: 16th February, 2014
Richard Wilson, Priest Assisting at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Sirach 15:15-20, 1 Corinthians 2:6-10, Matthew 5:17-37
Since I last stood in this pulpit I have found myself doing some unexpected things. One of them was to spend a year teaching RE to seven and eight year olds at Camberwell Primary School. It was part of my curacy at St John's Camberwell. I always trudged across the park to the school feeling a bit grumpy — 'why should I have to do this'. Invariably I returned with a smile on my face. It was not clear to me why someone with a calling to ministry in the business community should be expected to work in a primary school. As it turned out, I learned a lot from these kids.
For a while I faithfully followed the Access Ministries prescribed curriculum, but it was a bit bland and I found myself improvising. One of these opportunities was when the 10 Commandments were the subject of the day. As a society we cannot seem to get past the Authorised Version's rendition of the commandments — thou shalt not do this, thou shalt not do that. Having been a small boy once I knew following this pattern was a trap. So I decided to re-interpret the proscriptive commands into prescriptive ethical statements, in contemporary language. 'Thou shalt not murder' became 'you should look after every person'. And, because I know you are wondering, 'thou shalt not commit adultery' became 'you will have respect for everyone in every family'.
This was not without a bit of soul-searching — did I have the authority to do this? Did I have the authority to address my problem with the 10 commandments in teaching these others? It is my concern that with two exceptions, the commandments are all negative and written in a way that lends itself to constraining the observer into an ideal, hierarchical social structure and does not particularly help us find ways of relating ancient scripture into contemporary issues. But, do I have the authority to interpret, let alone impose my interpretation on others?
Two things strike me from the scripture we have heard today. The first is that we have in the fragment of the Sermon on the Mount, our Gospel reading, a precedent where Jesus restates the Law, the commandments, in terms that have meaning and relevance for the society of his day. He absolutely insists that the Law and the prophets will not pass away, that is they cannot be dismissed, but re-states them in the context of those who hear him. They become a set of ethical statements that can usefully guide the lives of his listeners. Not only guide, but lead to a life worthy of the Cross.
The other remarkable thing is Sirach — the whole of the reading, which not only authorises us to act for ourselves, but more importantly places on us responsibility and consequence for the actions we choose. I quote:
- If you choose, you can keep the commandments,
- and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
- He has placed before you fire and water;
- stretch out your hand for whichever you choose.
- Before each person are life and death,
- and whichever one chooses will be given.
We may choose to follow the commandments or not, but either way we will have to live with the consequences.
It is a truism to say, but nonetheless true, that 2000 years on, we live in a world where the context has moved dramatically from Jesus' time. We are enlightened, so we think, we reify and reward the individual, especially where she is successful in worldly terms, we strive to make ourselves self-sufficient, all the while isolating ourselves from dependency on community.
The Church has watched this happen over, especially, the past 200-300 years, struggling at each generation to find a contemporary and authoritative voice. We look inside of ourselves and our community, regretting the loss of our place in the community, the desertion of our pews on a Sunday morning, the depletion of our funds, the drying up of bequests, to the point that we are fearful of our survival even within a few tens of years. But I would say where we are no longer relevant it is because we have not made it so. Where we have not made it so, it is not for lack authority to act for ourselves.
The world of business, commerce and finance, which is my area of interest, arose in its present form during the age of the enlightenment. It is especially protective of its independence, it seeks no authority or control over it, because it is populated by a community of individuals.
Insofar as it tries to be a community, it has developed its own rules to govern community behavior, its own commandments, if you like. They do not look much like our 10 Commandments, in any form. They celebrate success and wealth, they desire growth, they support community that supports them but as soon as it doesn't, community is abandoned. It is partial to the one who has wealth and power. In some cases, as in the Corporations Act of The Commonwealth, the preference for partiality of this kind is provided for in law.
The independence and individuality that has been won through the enlightenment has meant that the rules of the business, commerce and finance community have been made in an environment where spiritual matters are sidelined, if not absent. The authority of these rules has no spiritual foundation, rather, they are validated by their own self-serving utility. Nor is the process of making the rules democratic. Not all stakeholders are at the table — to borrow from their own lexicon.
Before we criticise the business community too readily, however, let's not forget that we are members of the community at large and we do have the power and the authority to affect how our community is organised.
Sure, it requires effort, but we are enabled and empowered. Let's also not forget that we are participants in this business community. If we are not presently working in a business we are at least customers. For the most part we are in some way investors — most of us have superannuation, almost all superannuation funds are invested on the stock exchange. You are part of it, whether you like it or not.
The task as I see it, the task I have taken on myself, and which I invite you to join me in, is to rewrite the ethics of Christ, to make them relevant to this business, commerce and finance community, to be a positive voice in that community, to actually proclaim this Gospel, not here in this building, not within our community only, but out there, with them and for them. Until they are no longer them, but us.
The Lord be with you.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.