One of my favourite images of reconciliation is that of Uncle Bob Randall, the multi-talented Yankunytjatjara elder from central Australia. ‘Spirituality’, he wrote in his autobiography ‘Songman’:
‘Spirituality is the ultimate answer to reconciliation in Australia and everywhere else in the world. Loving ourselves, our families, our neighbours, our countrymen and every other living thing is the reason we are here on earth. If we follow the ripple in the pond when a stone hits the water, we can easily see that the entire pond is affected by that one little stone. If the stone represents love, and it drops somewhere in our universe, that love will send its ripple through the entire universe. All the peoples, birds, animals, insects, plants, trees and rocks will in some way be affected by it. It is the same with anger and hate. We must choose which ripples we wish to send into the universe.’
- I really love that image. I used it often in my peace and reconciliation work for the National Council of Churches (in Australia): partly for its intrinsic beauty and wisdom; partly as it chimed in with my own approach to peace making and reconciliation; and, not least, because it is a wonderful Australian expression of the spirit of Jesus in what we call ‘the Sermon on the Mount’, another reading from which we hear in our worship this Sunday...
Today’s Gospel reading is, as I say, just one part of the three great chapters of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel which we call ‘the Sermon on the Mount’. The heart of it is Matthew’s presentation of what we might call ‘the ‘new’ law of Jesus. As a Gospel written in and for a Jewish community, Matthew is most certainly not keen to present Jesus as doing away with the Jewish law. Jesus is rarely, if ever, shown in Matthew’s Gospel as against the law. What however he is shown as, is the new Moses, the ‘new law’ giver: fulfilling, or deepening, of the Jewish law.
Therefore, as elsewhere in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, today’s Gospel takes us further than external, forensic, law. It asks us to consider the condition of our hearts, and the attitudes of our minds and whole selves, not just particular acts. This is why Jesus says it is not enough not to commit acts such as murder, or adultery, or false witness. Every society regards those acts as generally destructive to life and well-being: except in certain, very limited circumstances, such as war. God however calls us to something more. God calls us not just to avoid bad acts but to cultivate positive attitudes which create greater and deeper peace and reconciliation.
That makes sense, doesn’t it? Think about Uncle Bob Randall’s image again. Committing murder is certainly like dropping a huge boulder into the pool of life, sending out massive ripples of pain and destruction. Yet anger also creates ripples of hurt and destruction. Maybe this is not so devastating, but it has profound effects. Similarly, where people are full of lust or lies, or other forms of selfishness, it is hard for peace and harmony to flourish. It is not so much keeping laws, in the narrow sense, that matters. What counts is the impact of all we think, say and do, on others. Relationship: this is the key to God’s law. It is what is written in our hearts not in our law codes. It is about spirituality not the outward features of religion.
This helps us with what otherwise seems very ‘hard’ words by Jesus on divorce. I am not going to speak at length about this, as I preached not so long ago about it, and a copy of what I said then is on the parish website. The central point is that Jesus was challenging the people of his day not just to think about what external, forensic, law allowed them to do. He was challenging them to consider relationships and to practise compassion. Jesus, I believe, was most concerned about the impact of divorce on women who were cast aside. For, in those days, this meant women were thrown into poverty and shame. Yes, Jesus agreed, the external law allowed men to initiate divorce, though, significantly, it did not allow women to do so. Yet the law of God demanded more than that. What would this mean in terms of relationship? Clearly, women would not be treated with compassion, and, hence. Jesus’ ‘hard’ words. Today, things might be a little different. We live in a very changed world, where women have rights and opportunities and where marriages are much more than economic and social arrangements and can last much longer due to radically improved health and life expectancy. Compassion today therefore sometimes demands less harsh responses. This is absolutely in line with God’s law, which is always about compassion and relationships and what best helps to spread ripples of peace.
In the end, you see, Jesus is a wisdom teacher not a lawyer, just as the Bible is ultimately a source of compassion not a provider of a moral or religious constitution. In his teaching Jesus therefore seeks to offer us ways to live rather than principles to confine us. Jesus tries to offer us practical advice about how to live in this world, though not of this world: ways in which we may indeed transform the world, rather than be simply conformed to it. Not surprisingly then, Jesus is not very keen on us getting too involved with courts of law. Isn’t it so much better, he says, if we can settle our conflicts without recourse to external law? That way we deal with things in terms of relationship. Interestingly, this is exactly what the western church is now starting to learn from African and Indigenous peoples: that, in Christian conflicts, it is often so much better to use traditional means of settling disputes in relational ways, rather than modern, western, formal and forensic manners. Indeed, it is hard to see how we will move on in the conflicts in the Anglican Communion without this.
It comes back to what we think peace and reconciliation look like to God. Too often we think of peace as the absence of conflict and of reconciliation as merely compromise. Our bible readings today tell us something else. They speak of peace as a positive thing: something which has to be worked at and created. Laws can only guide us. What is really needed are hearts which are focused on God and full of God’s compassion. So, what kind of a stone will we therefore drop into the pools of our lives? In the peace, the shalom, of God, Amen.