The Difference Between “Right” and “Wrong”

This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Wednesday 12 June 2019. You can listen again here:

And here is the text:

Many years ago, I was in a church Bible Study Group in Birmingham. There was one lady I remember still – the wonderfully named Mrs Proverbs. I remember her saying with emphasis one day “And we all know the difference between right and wrong”. And I remember marvelling at her certainty and reflecting that I found the whole subject of what Christians should or shouldn’t do quite perplexing. Mrs Proverbs was born in the West Indies and was a generation older than me. I imagine that she had come from a community with a fixed understanding of what Christian values were.

Not so today. We no longer accept what we are told unreflectingly, and our communities are complex and varied. I expect that Mrs Proverbs knew the 10 commandments by heart, but it is a very long time since I have heard them read in church, and I wonder how many of us would be confident that we could name them all? They have always been the touchstone of Christian morality, but it is increasingly difficult to understand how we can apply them to twenty first century life. Yet in today’s reading Jesus says that not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until heaven and earth pass away. But from the early days of Christianity Christians didn’t obey the detailed prohibitions of the old testament. I’m breaking the law right now by wearing a shirt that is mixed fibres, and another one by wearing trousers.

So, what is it that is unchangingly and eternally the law?

Firstly, we have Jesus own summary of the law where he puts together two verses from different places in the Old Testament: Love God with your whole hearty, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. So, all that we do must be shot through with love for God, for others and for ourselves. As St Augustine says “Love God and do what you please”. If our hearts are set on following Christ in the way of love, we will get it right. But the truth is that we need a little more guidance. There are complex decisions to be made about assisted suicide for instance, where wanting to do the best for all the people involved still makes it difficult to decide what to do. And anyone who has parented teenagers will have realised what a minefield the modern world is when making rules with their best interests at heart.

Perhaps the ten commandments can help us after all. Let’s take as an example Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Sunday opening of shops has been the norm for years now, and for many people Sunday is a working day. Whatever we might think about that we are not going to be able to turn back the clock. But if we look behind the commandment itself to the reason that it was given, we see that the important point is that there is a day of rest. So, for a Christian it is important that we keep a balance to our lives, and to allow others to do that, too. Rhetoric about “hard-working families” needs to be challenged if it is commending a lifestyle with insufficient time to rest and scarcely any opportunity for both parents to be with their children at the same time.

I would say that there is one other ethical precept enshrined in the Bible. Micah puts it like this: to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. There are many parts of the Old Testament that are difficult to come to terms with, yet I cannot think of a single occasion when the rich and powerful are in any way let off the hook. The two greatest Kings, David and Solomon, were both criticised and found wanting. There is always an obligation to look after the orphan, the widow and the foreigner, and to make sure that no one mistreats them or takes advantage of them. We must always support the weak and the powerless.

We no longer live in an age where people can be given a list of rules of conduct which are policed by the church, and I for one welcome the responsibility of interpreting the Bible for myself. But perhaps we should give some thought as to how the Ten Commandments can be our guides in living out the Christian principles of Love and Mercy.

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