Which Commandment is the greatest? Our first reading gave us ten (Exodus 20:1-17) and it is an understandable question, which one is the most important. When Jesus was asked this question he gave the classic summary of the greatest being the first, ‘love God with all your heart and mind and soul’. And he added ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:36-40). On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Some of the ten are about how we get there – no idols, that is nothing to get in the way of loving God so that God has all our love and focus, nothing to distract or dilute it. We are to treat God with the respect due and not take the name of God in vain, to not treat it with contempt or disrespect. This is blasphemy and it is in effect a denial of the first command, to love God, and of the second for nothing to get in the way. Most of the rest of the commandments are about moral living, the ethics of action: honouring parents, no murder, no adultery, no theft, no lies and false witness, and not even coveting what someone else has – the envy that eats away at who we are and who they are.
One commandment remains. Where would you put the Sabbath in this list? Would you still include it in a society that has become used to seven-day shopping, internet banking and trading at all hours, connectivity of mobile phones and devices? Is the Sabbath an outdated idea? We know people need rest and time off, but surely rotas can facilitate this so that there is a rolling programme? The Sabbath is about more than just having time off. It is more than a day of rest – though I think there is something good for society about a day that is different to the others; a social and communal breathing space. But Sabbath rest exists for a deeper purpose. That purpose is to reset the focus, to be still and pause, to reflect and reconnect with the heart of the first commandment. It is the recalibration command amidst often over busy lives that can distort our perspective, cloud our vision and dent our hope. It is the day to remember God, to remember the first command to love God, to have no other gods placed in the way of God. And money and working and so many other activities can become idols to be worshipped in the place of God.
Lent is a really big Sabbath time. It lasts for 40 days and during it we are encouraged to live differently, to take time out to be still to remember God, to recalibrate. For some that can be a bit of a detox, to give up what we might be in danger of doing or consuming to excess. It can be a moment when we read or study. The Live Lent app provides a very simple way of doing this each day. For those who want to reflect on the political and social shape of our society and its direction, Archbishop Justin Welby has just published a book of reflections called ‘Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope’. I got hold of my copy this week, so I am looking forward to carving out some Sabbath time to read, think and pray over the issues he reflects on.
And the pressures against this making of space for Sabbath time are immense. I have noticed over recent years that life does not take Lent at all seriously and the pressure of meetings and demands crowd in. They do not pause. Lent then becomes more of a time of exhaustion than rest and refreshment. Sabbath rest, though is not just about a big lie in and sleep, but the rest that refreshes and refocuses, resets our vision on God the loving creator and redeemer. It is to be reset in the placing of God in the centre of our lives and the moral and ethical action which flows from that.
It is with this in mind that Jesus walked into the Temple, saw the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, and created a disturbance (John 2:13-22). His actions would get him arrested in Queensgate and have him brought before the magistrate. He was not reacting against trading in the temple as such. So there is nothing wrong with shops and bazaars in churches. They have been market spaces for centuries and are today. We have to think through how we can generate more income to run the church and events, hiring out for functions and having shops and stalls are all part of this. We have been looking at what is compatible and what is not, so that we don’t damage the primary purpose of the church to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ and draw people to follow him. All events should be compatible with our ethos and values We are to love God with all our heart and our neighbour as our self – to live ethically and engage in moral action. Jesus’ anger was directed at the corruption that he found.
The exchange rates for the money changing were unfair. The animals being sold were ones acceptable for sacrifice and if someone couldn’t afford these, they could take out high interest, buy-now-pay-later loans. The system was corrupt and exploitative. The interest rates usurious, rather like the payday loan companies charging 60% APR, even 1000% APR. These companies would find Jesus causing a disturbance in their stores and if we set one up in the church we would be going against what he did in our gospel reading. So it is not trading but unfair and exploitative trading that he objected to. It made him angry as he saw the poor and vulnerable being taken for a ride. It dishonoured the Temple, and the Commandment to love God, to have no idols – including money, to not disrespect God and we know that disrespecting people dishonours God, to live ethically and justly.
So which Commandment is the most important, the greatest? It is love of God, love of neighbour as ourselves and Sabbath rest is how we reset the values that we live by, values that flow from these. The Sabbath is the breathing space we all need. Lent is a 40 day Sabbath period with the challenge to live differently so that we may be renewed for how we live beyond it.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Lent 3 – Sunday 4th March 2018