Given by David Teall
27th February 2011
The banner at the top of our Pew Sheet tells us that this is the Second Sunday before Lent, the point in the Lectionary when we get back to the sequence of Sundays that occur every year, no matter how early or late Easter may be. However, that is not the only description that could be given to this day. For many of you it might be more meaningful to describe it as the First Sunday post Panto, the day of the long-promised return to normality. For others, it might be described as the Last Sunday of half term. As I look around I see bleary-eyed grand-parents with a tired but happy smile on their faces, partly because of happy memories of exciting games with their grand-children and partly because they have got their houses back to themselves at last.
I can relate to both of these descriptions. I enjoyed the panto very much, more especially as I didn’t have to do anything other than attend, and I have had the joys of grand-children coming to stay over half-term. Oliver, one of my grandsons, aged 10, is particularly partial to Pat’s home-made Chocolate Cake. This time it didn’t get made before he arrived so he had to go into the kitchen and ‘help’. Under Pat’s watchful eye he assembled the ingredients: Chocolate, Butter, Caster Sugar, Eggs, Milk and Flour. Then the first exciting bit: creaming the butter and sugar. Just as he was about to switch on the mixer his brother Josh rushed in (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything slowly) and shouted (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything quietly) “Is it ready yet Grandma?” Aaah! The joys of being a grand-parent!
I shall return to the Curious Tale of the Half-Term Chocolate Cake a little later and hopefully explain how it relates to my main topic for this morning: reading the Bible.
Philip has spoken to us over the last few weeks about the dangers of forming an opinion by interpreting a single passage of scripture in isolation. Today’s Gospel is a very good example of a passage that can very easily be misinterpreted: at first sight it appears to be a Hippy’s charter:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. and a little later: Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”
That’s all pretty clear isn’t it? Don’t bother with all that sowing and reaping stuff: sit around and enjoy yourself and God will provide. Don’t worry about what clothes you wear. You’re beautiful! Peace and Love! Peace and Love!
For a baby boomer like me, who spent his teenage years in the 60’s this could all sound very attractive. “do not worry about tomorrow” the reading goes on, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” And it’s all here – in the Bible – so it’s the Word of God isn’t it?
If only it were that simple. The Bible does indeed contain the Word of God, but it is written in the words of men.
To hear God speaking to us through those words requires a much deeper study than that made so far by my inner Hippy looking for an excuse to do nothing all day.
Most scholars today believe that The Gospel of Matthew was written at sometime between 80 and 90 A.D. The author is unknown but analysis of the text suggests that he was a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, possibly a scribe. Similar analysis suggests that he used the earlier Gospel of Mark as one of his sources alongside a collection of stories about Jesus that was in circulation at the time often referred to as ‘Q’ and some other unknown sources of his own. It was some time later that the Gospel was attributed to the disciple Matthew.
The Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s reading is taken, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus, not a word-for-word transcript of a particular sermon given at a particular place on a particular day. The author has grouped them together in order to form the first of five major discourses in his Gospel, all of which end with the words: “and when Jesus had finished saying these things … …”or similar.
Some scholars suggest that these five discourses reflect the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, which were traditionally written by Moses. The author, speaking to a largely Jewish audience, wanted to portray Jesus as the new Moses who fulfilled the prophesies of the old and superseded them. Thus, by presenting the sayings of Jesus as a single sermon on the law of the New Kingdom delivered from a mountain, the author is reflecting the story of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, a symbolism that would have been instantly recognised by his audience, just as you recognised my references to the Panto and to half-term. By this means he retained ownership of the fundamental story from his Jewish roots but moved it on to proclaim the New Kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Some of you may find this sort of analysis rather harsh and disturbing. If Jesus didn’t really preach the Sermon on the Mount in the way described in Matthew’s Gospel; if the author put stories together in order to put his particular ‘spin’ on events, then what are we to believe? To hopefully help you to understand that, I have a confession to make, or maybe it is not so much a confession – more an explanation.
Oliver and Josh did, indeed, come to stay with us over half-term but it was not in the week just ended as was implied in my story: it was the week before as they go to school in Staffordshire where the holiday pattern is different. We did many things with them but on this occasion Pat didn’t actually make a chocolate cake though she has done so on many previous occasions. Joshua, like most seven year-olds, is always asking ‘is it ready yet?’ though whether he did so the last time a cake was baked I can’t be sure as that was a while ago and memories of one visit can easily merge with another.
So was my story true? In a strictly historical sense it was not. I linked it to the half-term just ended because, knowing my audience, I knew that many of you would relate to that and it would help me gain your attention. The story gave you an accurate description of Oliver (he like his food) and Joshua (he is aged seven, impatient and noisy) and it gave an accurate description of family life in the twenty first century that would be of interest to historians in 2000 years’ time. In one sense it was not ‘the truth’ but it contained a great deal of truth. The Bible, for very similar reasons, is much the same.
So finally, with these thoughts in mind, let’s go back and have another look at today’s reading. Is it really the Hippy charter that it appears to be? To answer that we need to understand that Jesus and his disciples, and the people to whom he spoke and the author of the Gospel of Matthew were all Jews and were all very familiar with the stories in Genesis, one of which we heard as our Old Testament reading today.
In this story of the creation God said: ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’ He didn’t say: ‘Behold, I shall give you a ready-made freshly-baked Pizza every day.’ We know too from other stories about Jesus that he had a great respect for and affinity with those who worked in the fields and those who looked after the animals: many of his parables were about them. There is no way in which he would denigrate the hard work put in by such people nor deny its importance. We need to keep looking.
Now that we know what the passage does not mean we can look at it with fresh eyes. It is towards the end that we find the final clue: “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
The story is not about whether or not we spend our time working in the fields to turn God’s gifts into food for the table or clothes for our back: Jesus has assumed that we will do that. It is about the priority we give that work. If our first priority is to eat good food and wear fine clothes then we are failing to give the necessary priority to building the kingdom of God. By contrast, if we make building the kingdom our first priority, the material things of life, such as we need, will follow. Far from suggesting an easy path through life, what Jesus is asking of us is to put the needs of others first, for that is the key to building the kingdom. Building the Kingdom is a hard task that faithful Christians have been working on for the last 2000 years. Like Joshua I’m tempted to ask: “is it ready yet?” but I know I would get the same answer as he did: No – the work has only just begun and, now that you are here, you can do your share.