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Sunday 5 February 2023

The Law, the Prophets and Justice for First Peoples

Texts: Isaiah 58.1-12; Matthew 5.13-20

In the gospel reading we heard from just now, Matthew has Jesus say: 

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  For I tell you, unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

So what is this ‘law’ that Jesus does not intend to abolish, and who are these ‘prophets’ whose oracles Jesus intends to fulfill? 

The law is the law of Moses, the law given to Israel after they have fled slavery in Egypt. You know, the ten words or commandments. You can read about them in Exodus chapter 20.  Amongst the laws are these:

You shall have no gods before Yahweh.

You shall not worship idols.

Keep the sabbath.

You shall not murder.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbour.

‘Do not think, for one moment,’ says the Matthean Jesus, ‘that I have come to do away with this law.  I have not.  This law will stand until the age has reached its conclusion. Keep this law, and you will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Break this law, and you will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven’.

The law stands, then. It has not be swept away by some cheap and unnuanced understanding of ‘grace’ or ‘forgiveness’, as some seem to believe. It stands. And you and I, who believe in the teaching of Jesus, are called to keep it.

The prophets, whose oracles Jesus came to fulfill, bear witness to the importance of the law. It was on the basis of this law that Isaiah, for example, passed judgment on the nobles and landowners of Israel in the 8th century BCE. 

Isaiah criticises the wealthy for abandoning the law of God in three respects. First, they steal from their own workers, those who labour in their farms and vineyards. They cheat their workers of their just wages. Second, they tell lies about one another and plan violent assaults upon one another in the hope of securing the wealth that belongs to their neighbours. Third, they are content to allow the hungry in their communities to remain hungry. They will not share their plenty with those who are poor through no fault of their own. They will not take such folk into their homes and tend their wounds. They remain aloof and uncaring. Thus, in these three respects, the wealthy are chided by the prophet for their lack of neighbourly care. For a neighbour who cares will not steal. A neighbour who cares will not lie and plan violence against othersr. A neighbour who cares, will not hoard what they have and fail to share it with those who have nothing.

Now, in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is like a new Moses, a new Isaiah. He is Moses comes from Egypt to give the law again. He is Isaiah come to warn the wealthy Jewish collaborators with Empire – the Roman empire – that their greed and indifference will result only in their ruin.

‘Why’, he says, ‘can you not be like salt, which gives a meal its tang, and makes it attractive?’ ‘Why,’ he says, ‘can you not be like a light on a hill, paragons of justice that inspire others to be good, and to love, and to take mind of one’s neighbours?’

These are exactly the questions that face us as a church and a nation.

Australia is a nation that has become powerful by coveting, stealing,  murdering and slaving. Coveting Aboriginal lands, murdering those who sought to defend it, stealing that land and carrying its children off into slavery and domestic servitude.

Our church worked hand in glove with the colonial authorities. We participated in the stealing, the murdering and the slaving. Indeed, we actually ran the institutions that did a lot of the damage.

That, my friends, is why Aboriginal Australia is in such distress, even now. It is why we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. It is why our kids take their own lives at rates unrivalled by any other people group. It is why we regularly die in the custody of justice officials but no one has ever – ever! – been held accountable for such deaths. It is why we still have so little ownership or control of our own lives or the land that was given us by God. It is why we most of us remain sick and poor.

All because church and state broke every single one of those commandments that Jesus came to teach and to fulfill. All because the church failed in the duty to be a neighbour.

Now, for thirty years, I have seen the church pray for Aboriginal people. I have seen the church say sorry to Aboriginal people. I’ve even seen the church set up Aboriginal councils, ‘Voices’, if you will, to advise Synods and bishop’s councils on what to do about the Aboriginal ‘problem’. What I have not seen in those 30 years, however, is a church that will do anything much at all about justice, about the fulfilling of the law and the prophets after the way of Jesus. I have not seen a church hand back the land it stole. I have not seen a church compensate the families of those whose children it took away and sold into slavery or domestic servitude. I have never seen a church do positive things to reverse the trends: set Aboriginal employment benchmarks, or give to Aboriginal leaders real power in the church to do things differently, in ways that make sense to us, in ways that will foster pride and the healing.  I have not seen the church do any of these neighbourly things.  I have not seen a church that can even begin to understand what costly love might require.

I have only seen a church of thoughts and prayers, of words and glossy brochures.

In this way the tragedy of the church in this place, in this country, is related to the tragedy of my people. By failing to be the church – to love the neighbour rather than murder, rape and steal from the neighbour – the church guarantees that its neighbour will suffer rather than thrive.  The church carries the guilt of its original sin, and so fails to thrive. To be salty, to be a light for the nations.

But the good news is this: the story of our church and nations is not yet complete, it is not yet over.  I am here with you today to remind you of your power to change the story.  Allow me to quote from Isaiah once more: 

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

As we prepare to enter the fast known as Lent, there is before us yet another opportunity for the church to turn around, to forsake its evils, and to walk the way of Christ. To embrace a far more thoroughgoing fast. To finally do some measure of justice, so that the oppressed can begin their long walk to freedom.  For in the freedom of Aboriginal peoples is your freedom. In the liberation of those whom you have long oppressed is your own liberation. 

So, write to your churchly leaders, if you have a care. Implore them to do justice on your behalf. Write to your national leaders, implore them to take care for the First People of this land. Implore them all to make treaty with us, to enact a more just settlement that is able to heal the wounds that rend us all.  If you do this, your light will finally rise and the gloom that afflicts us all will be replaced by the brightness of noon.

I stand amongst you as one who does not like to say these things because doing so places me in a vulnerable position. But, as a disciple of Christ who knows nothing but Christ and him crucified, it sometimes falls to me to say what needs to be said. So I encourage you, I implore you, I beg you: choose to walk with Jesus as he commends to us the way of the law and the prophets. In this way lies justice for First Peoples, and ultimately healing for us all.

Garry Deverell

St Paul’s Cathedral, Naarm/Melbourne
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2023