Sunday, 4 March 2018

Lent 3: The household of God

I wonder how many different households you’ve lived in during your life. In my case, I grew up in a rather rambling, eccentric house with my mum and dad and older brother, and a succession of lodgers who lived in a flat at the top of the house. They were mostly single, male, post-graduate students, and they were rather indistinguishable one from another. If the phone rang for them, we’d go to the foot of the stairs leading up to the flat and shout out “Dave, Steve, Paul…” until someone responded…
Lots of different households followed though. Student houses, sharing with complete strangers, when I went to university. Family homes when I married and children arrived and grew up.
By the time they were teenagers I was divorced, and lone parenting them. It was just the three of us, and Pickles the cat, who you may remember. When they left home for uni, it was just him and me for a while, but then Philip came along, and the rest you know… Most of the adult households I have lived in have also been vicarages, of course, households where you never quite know who you’ll find on the doorstep, needing to come in for coffee and a chat.  

Households vary enormously in shape, in size and in feel. They often change over time, as mine have done. Sometimes they’re happy places, sometimes not. Sometimes the people in them get along; sometimes they don’t. But whatever they’re like, they matter to us. They give us a sense of identity and belonging . They shape us, for good or ill, and they all have their own rules, spoken and unspoken. Is yours a household where you eat at a table, or on your laps in front of the telly? Is it a “shoes off at the door” household, or not? Is it a quiet household or a riot of noise?  

If we want to understand our readings today we have first to think about households and what they mean to us. In the ancient world, households were often much bigger than ours. They included extended families, several generations and often servants and slaves too. But they mattered just as much to people, and, like ours, they all had their own characters and cultures, just as ours do.  

Households weren’t just about individual families or tribes, though. The nation was seen as one giant household, and it was the Ten Commandments that established and expressed what it was meant to be like. They are the household rules of the household of Israel.  

According to the Bible, they were given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai so that he could pass them on to the rag tag bunch of ex-slaves he’d led out of Egypt, as they headed for the Promised Land. Their forty years of wandering would give them plenty of time to ponder them! “I am the Lord your God” they start. These people  belong to God. Why? Because “I brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” That’s a powerful phrase – the house of slavery – that was what their previous experience of being a household had been. Slavery had shaped their whole lives. It wasn’t just about their outward status, but about the way they saw themselves, their dreams and expectations, or rather their lack of them. What was the point of dreaming if you were someone else’s possession, theirs to do what they liked with? As Moses soon found, taking the people out of slavery wasn’t the same as taking the slavery out of the people. Again and again they looked back to Egypt. “At least there we had food to eat – leeks and garlic and cucumbers and melons. Now there is only manna! If this is freedom, you can keep it !” they said.  Freedom is challenging and difficult. Better the devil you know than the devilyou don’t. Whose household did they belong to now? Who was responsible for them?

The Ten Commandments, told them the answer to that question. They hadn’t been set adrift in the world. They still belonged to a household, but it was the household of God, a new community which would be very different, and far, far better than the house of slavery.

And what would it look like, this new household? Again, the Ten Commandments showed them. They start with the fundamental truth. The head of this household is God. Not Pharaoh, nor any other human ruler. And God was beyond their imagination, the commandments said, bigger than they were. That was why they weren’t to make statues to worship, even statues of God, because when we do that we often end up reducing God to a size we can manage, this big, that wide. He becomes our possession, not we his.

For the same reason, the Israelites are commanded not to “make wrongful use” of his name, using it as a sort of lucky charm or a magic formula, or even as a token of our honesty. When we do that we treat God as if he is our servant, at our beck and call, and it can never be like that. Keeping a Sabbath day matters for the same reason. It reminds us that we’re in God’s hands. It’s easy to get swallowed up in the idea that it’s all down to us, that we need to strive and work endlessly, that if we don’t help ourselves no one will. We try to be big and strong, even when we really aren’t. We forget to rest in God and on God.

The rest of the commandments spell out how people should treat one another in God’s household, but they depend on the first four commandments too. If we are God’s children, members of his household, then so is everyone else; they deserve to be treated with respect and care.

One of the distinctive things about these Jewish commandments was that it didn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, powerful or powerless; the rules applied to everyone equally. In the legal systems of many of the nations around Israel, the punishments for murder or stealing or adultery were different for different social classes. A rich man who killed a poor man might have to pay a fine to his family. A poor man who killed a rich man would be executed. In Israel it wasn’t so. There was one law for everyone. Of course, it often didn’t work out that way, human nature being what it is, but that was what was meant to happen, and when it didn’t the prophets thundered their rebukes to the people. They’d forgotten who they were, and whose they were, and nothing but trouble would come of that.  

When Jesus stormed into the Temple in our Gospel reading, people must have felt as if they were in the presence of one of those ancient prophets. What was he angry about? This was the place which symbolised God’s presence with his people. It was God’s house, the place where his household gathered, the place where you could be sure he would hear you and see you. If people weren’t keeping his household rules in this place, they probably weren’t keeping them anywhere else.

The traders in the Temple had almost certainly set up their stalls in the Court of the Gentiles, the only place where a non-Jewish person could worship. They were robbing people of the possibility of coming close to God. It also may be the case that they were exploiting those who had no other option than to buy the animals they sold, and change their money at the rates they set. You couldn’t easily bring your own animals to sacrifice at the Temple. Imagine dragging a reluctant sheep all the way from Galilee. So you had to buy them when you got there. And you had to change your money from the coins used for ordinary trade, into the coins specified for paying the Temple tax, Tyrian Shekels. It’s highly likely that some, at least, were making the most of the fact that they had a monopoly, that people had to trade with them.

Scholars argue about what, specifically, had so enraged Jesus, but it’s clear that he saw people being treated badly, people being excluded from God’s household. If they weren’t being treated with respect, then God wasn’t being treated with respect either. And the fact that this all took place in the building which symbolised God’s presence with them, the focus of his household life, made it even worse.  

People were shocked when Jesus overturned the tables and scattered the livestock. It must have been pandemonium. But that was nothing compared to what came next. Jesus said that soon people wouldn’t need the Temple to meet with God and to be his household. The old systems would be destroyed . But a new Temple would rise in three days. It was only after his death and resurrection that his followers understood that he was talking about his own body, and his opponents never did, so it’s not surprising that they were horrified.

What Jesus is saying – and it was quite revolutionary – was that in the future, people would meet with God through meeting with him. This had happened in his physical presence, but it would also happen as they shared the bread and wine of the Eucharist, his body and blood, and as they gathered together in the new household of the Church.

Just like those Israelite ex-slaves in the desert, the early Christians discovered that they belonged to the household of God, whoever they were, whatever their backgrounds. As they loved each other, helped each other, prayed together, wept together, rejoiced together, they found God amongst them.

And our great privilege is that each of us is called to be part of that household too, finding God in our midst. Whether we meet in twos or threes, or in hundreds, whether we worship in the splendid medieval building across the road or here in the hall, God shows up when we get together. He shapes us into his household, if we will let him, teaching us to live, not in the house of slavery, not in fear or in condemnation,  but surrounded by his unquenchable, everlasting love. Whatever the other households we belong to are like, the household of God is one in which we can be richly blessed, and through which we can richly bless others.


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