How do we know God? How do we hear what God wants of us?
The psalm, Old Testament reading and Gospel passage for today all provide answers to those questions.
Psalm 19 begins by talking about knowing God through the majesty of creation. Many people have come to a belief in God in that way. It is often said that the natural world was humanity’s first scripture. Through wonder at the glory and intricacy and balance of the natural world, which allows human beings to live and prosper, they have come to believe in a loving creator and sustaining force outside and within creation. The belief in the unity of nature is the foundation of modern science; contrary to a prevalent modern belief, science and religion are not in opposition. Properly applied, they support and feed one another.
Creation speaks to us silently. The psalm reminds us it has no speech or language. We are left free to interpret it in our own way, as the Spirit of God moves us.
Psalm 19 then goes on to talk about the law, the wisdom and the statutes of God. Like the reading from Exodus, this part of the Psalm sees the Word of God, spoken through the prophets and enshrined in law codes, written in the Torah, as a second way in which God is revealed to us, and through which we hear what God wants of us.
The Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20, and repeated in Deuteronomy, are at the heart of the Torah, the Old Testament book of the law. They fall into two parts: the first three concern human relationships with God. They specify that the Chosen People shall worship only one God. They prohibit them from attempting to limit and control God by making images to represent the divine, or by using the divine name in magic rites.
The remaining seven formulate the conditions for the Covenant Community to prosper. The fourth demands that the community respects the rhythm of life that God has set down, with one day of rest from labour for everyone, from the highest to the lowest. Then there are two concerned with preserving strong family relationships, which form the foundation of the larger community: one concerned with honouring the elders of the family, the second concerned with honouring the marriage bond, which forms the nucleus of each new generation of family.
Then there are four about more formal relationships in the community – prohibiting murder, stealing, lying in a court of law, and desiring your neighbour’s property (which includes his wife!). If the last seems rather strange, we need to remember that, unlike other ancient law codes, this one applied to everyone equally. There was no different law for the rich and powerful. So this last one prohibits rich and powerful members of the community from simply taking what they wanted from the poorer and weaker community members. Under God’s covenant, all members of the community were equally subject to the law.
The writer of Psalm 19 sees the law of God as sweet and joyful; but over time, that was not how it was experienced, especially not by the weaker members of the community. The regulations became more and more elaborate, and became divisive, rather than promoting community, a burden rather than a liberation. The emphasis in worship of God changed to a concern about the right performance of ritual, rather than honouring the Creator and Guardian of the people, and hearing what God wanted of humanity. Some of the prophets, notably Isaiah, Micah and Jeremiah, protested that God was not interested in ritual, festivals and sacrifice. What was really required of the covenant people, they said, was justice for the poor, concern for the needy, mercy and humility.
Religious buildings, and particularly the Temple came to be seen as the symbol of this distortion of true worship. Instead of being the place where everyone was able to encounter the divine, it became a place where rules and regulations kept the vast majority of people at a distance from God, where people were divided into categories, and only the powerful few could approach the Holy of Holies.
There was an expectation by the time of Jesus that, when God’s Messiah came, one of the things he would do was reform the Temple. So the actions of Jesus in the temple were in effect, a claim to be God’s Messiah, and to be showing the priests and the teachers of the Law what was God’s will.
His particular action had a wider significance. The Temple consisted of a number of areas or courts. The closer one got to the Holy of Holies, the more restrictions there were about who could enter. So the closest court was that of the priests, then the court of Israel, which only Jewish men could enter. Next came the court of the women, and furthest out, the Court of the Gentiles.
It was the Court of the Gentiles where all the commercial activity took place. This was necessary for the worship of the Temple. The Temple Tax couldn’t be paid in Roman money, because it had images on it; so the money the pilgrims arrived with had to be changed; animals and birds without blemish were required for the various sacrifices and offerings: travellers could not be expected to bring them from home, so they had to be bought on site.
Of course there were many opportunities for fraud and exploitation in these commercial activities; but that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus was protesting against in his action. Rather, it was the fact that the commercial activity filled the Court of the Gentiles, making any sort of worship there impossible. Isaiah and other prophets had looked forward to a time when the people of all nations would be drawn to Jerusalem, and be able to worship the one true God there. The commercial activity made that impossible.
The Jewish leaders then asked Jesus for a sign to confirm he was authorised to speak in God’s name. Jesus’ reply points backwards, to his life of humility and service, and forward to its inevitable conclusion – death on the cross. To those who really hear God speaking through creation and through the Scriptures, Jesus proclaims, his life and death are the only evidence needed that God speaks through him.
The Temple authorities cannot accept this. Their religion has become defined by ever expanding law codes and elaborate rituals. They have come to believe that they can only encounter God in a particular building, or through a particular interpretation of certain written documents. It was much too challenging to believe that an ordinary insignificant human being could reveal to them what God wants. As St Paul commented in his letter to the Corinthians, in the passage which is set for the New Testament reading this Sunday, such a claim is “a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to Gentiles”.
It goes against all previous understanding of the way God communicates with humanity.
But, we who claim to follow Christ as God’s revelation to us, should be wary of feeling too superior to the Jewish authorities of Jesus’s time, or the Gentiles who executed him. During the centuries of Christian history, and still today, we find it very difficult to follow Jesus as our guide to how to live as God wants us to live.
We too find it much easier to govern our lives (and to seek to govern other people’s lives) according to a set of written laws, without asking ourselves what sort of society these rules were designed to achieve, and questioning whether they still do that. Like the Temple authorities, we still try to divide humanity into groups, judging some more worthy than others to approach and represent God. We so often demonstrate our allegiance to God through constructing beautiful buildings, through rituals, and special festivals, and through the exercise of political and military power to force people into conformity, rather than by replicating Christ’s life of humility, service and love for the weak and the outcast, and by challenging the powerful, even when it brings difficulty and disaster to us, as Jesus did.
It takes a real openness to God and a deep faith in God’s revelation through the life of Jesus to seek to hear God speaking in our own situations, rather than confining God to rules or buildings, or even to seek God through the glories of nature. It is easier to take codes from the Bible and apply them to our very different context to condemn and exclude people, rather than offer our time and our money and our political voice to serve the disadvantaged, and to agitate for change, as Jesus did.
Donating money and food to the Food Bank, spending time helping the homeless, listening to a lonely migrant worker who seeks comfort in alcohol, visiting the elderly widowed and spending time listening to their troubles, advocating for the rights of refugees who fall foul of our rules and prejudices may not seem like obviously religious acts.
But those are the building blocks of God’s new Temple, the Body of Christ, which embodies God’s Word for us now.