There are two related readings today, presumably included in the lectionary deliberately by the church for our guidance, about the authority of the Old Testament laws. On these laws the Pharisees had built an edifice of control and condemnation; laws that were no doubt essential to bring wandering tribes from the mentality of slavery into some semblance of a civilized society. When Mary went to see her cousin, Elizabeth, to tell her of the good news of her pregnancy, Elizabeth’s husband, a priest, should by the law of the Pharisees, have betrayed her to the community and had her stoned to death for adultery. When Jesus saw a man with a withered hand on a Sabbath, he should have ignored the man’s plight until the next day. Jesus was pretty firm about how such laws betrayed the spirit of Love that permeated the two commandments that he left for us.
Jesus, Paul says in Corinthians, came to sweep all those restrictive laws away. In Exodus 34, we read about Moses covering his face to disguise the glow he had received up the mountain from meeting with God. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3 suggests that Moses’ veil had the purpose of disguising that the glow was fading. This indicated to Paul that the old laws had become redundant when Jesus gave us just two: Love God, Love your Neighbour.
What were the laws that Paul considered to be redundant? Of the 600-odd laws there were those that prohibited some clothing, some foods, and some behaviours; they were laws that promoted forms of worship and the status of different elements of society. Altogether, these laws were appropriate to the situation of a marauding band of ex-slaves intent on conquering a populated land, where food hygiene was important, where population expansion was vital, and where enemies must be eliminated. Paul understood that these laws were either irrelevant, or that they were subsumed under the two commands that Jesus gave. However, being human, he could not understand his own prejudices, ingrained from childhood, that women were inferior in status, that slavery could be conducted considerately, and that procreation was paramount in sexual relationships.
Legislators in the UK have had to overcome similar prejudices as they have reluctantly granted votes for women, as they have ceded the power for women to make decisions about their own bodies, as they have become worried about modern slavery, and as they have removed obstacles to homosexual behavior. In every case, the church has lagged behind in the name of honouring those very laws that Jesus, in his life, teaching, and example, rejected.
Christianity frequently makes the news for bad reasons. Christians demonstrating outside family planning clinics; Christians denying to gay people who love each other the right to marriage; Christians preventing women access to the priesthood; or Christians disbelieving our devastating impact on the climate. When foodbanks (often run by Christians) make the news; when hospices (often run by Christians) are mentioned; when children (many with Christian motivation) stage strikes for climate change; the Christian motivation is frequently ignored by news media. This is our fight; this is our challenge; it can’t be done from a settee with the TV on. What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?