Charity before piety
In the name of the father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, please sit.
You always know. That the gospel is an important one when it’s so short, there was a saying when I was in theological college, short, short gospel, long sermon, but that never made any sense to me because when the gospel is this short and to the point, what on earth needs explaining? What is it in this gospel that is difficult for us to understand?
Over the last few weeks, we have had a series of parables in Matthew where Matthew is talking to the Jewish people of the time and attempting to help them understand how they interpret the law in the new world now that Jesus has come, how they interpret the rules that they have written down, that the Pharisees and the Sadducees have put down together to say that, well, OK, work means no more than a walk of so many yards or you mustn’t get out of breath – or there are all these all of these rules laid down in and around the law and says that if you do these things, you will go to heaven.
And over the last few weeks, we’ve had the parables that Jesus has been telling to the Jewish people saying, no, this is what it means to follow God and here, if you like, this week we have the pinnacle of that story of Jesus talking to the Jewish people and telling them, this is how you live a good life under God.
This is how you achieve salvation. And he starts with the law that every single Jewish person that he was speaking to would have known because it is recited out loud in every synagogue, continues to be it is at the heart of Jewish worship.
Love the Lord, your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like this, those of us who know the Book of Common Prayer really well know this this summary of the law so well. The second is this. You must love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments and the whole law and the prophets also. So. What does that mean to us practically?
What does that mean to us day by day? Well, the temptation is to take one or other of these and to concentrate on that one thing. And so you can take the first element of this. You must love the Lord, your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your minds. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, it’s wonderful, it’s Zealous, we should be as passionate about the law as the Pharisees, as Jesus tells us in Matthew, there’s wonderful that is absolutely brilliant.
But if you only do that. Then you’re missing a large chunk of the love that God has for you. And therefore, how that love is lived out in the world. And so we have the second which resembles it, and that’s an important word which resembles it. You must love your neighbor as yourself. Without understanding those two commandments together, none of the law makes sense. None of the instructions we receive from God make any sense in the way we live our lives does not make sense.
If you take the second one, if you just take the love your neighbor as yourself, then we have a gospel of being nice. You know, there’s nothing wrong with being nice. But what happens then when you come across somebody you don’t agree with? Or you don’t like. But you love them as you love yourself. That doesn’t help me deal with this person that I’m struggling with. How do I do that, how do I engage with this person that I don’t like and that I struggle with?
That’s where the first commandment comes in, love the Lord, your God with all your heart, all your soul and with all your mind, because what you are doing is recognizing in the other person the love that God has for them. And that love shining through them. That’s what you can fall in love with, that’s what you can use to love and like that person. And it is it is it is easier said than done, and I stand here as a sinner that doesn’t doesn’t always achieve that.
I stand here as a as a person who struggles with other Christians other people who I disagree with fundamentally on things. And somehow in my head, I managed to wrangle it, that what I’m doing is providing correction and putting them on the straight and narrow. There’s an element of truth of that. Yes, we should correct one another, yes, we should hold each other to account. But if we doing that in order to prove ourselves right and them wrong, if we’re doing that out of some sort of sense of I must be right.
Then we’re not holding that first part of this commandment because it’s God’s will, not ours, that we love to see alive in the world, and so surrendering yourself to God’s love and to God’s direction is loving yourself, and that’s what you see in the other person.
All of this is very high-flauting and theological and is wonderful for a debate on a Thursday night with a glass of wine, I’m sure, but what does it mean in practice? Well, I’ll give you an example.
I went on pilgrimage to Walsingham with one of the churches in Hereford where I was a Curate and I was there with my training incumbent called Rob North. And, Rob is one of the gentlest, kindest, most beautiful men you will ever meet, and if you ever need an example of how you live your life as a loving Christian in God, Rob is it – it’s never about him – It’s never about HIS mission. It’s never about his church. It’s always about God, but not in a way that makes you feel like you’re being hit over the head with the gospel.
It’s just done in this most beautiful and loving way, so we were on pilgrimage. And the pilgrimage didn’t start terribly well, I have to be honest, we arrived and I opened the car door for one of the ladies who couldn’t come up and I open the door. And as I opened the door, I caught in the handle a bee and the bee stung the end of my finger. And let me tell you, that’s one of the most painful things I have experienced.
And Rob was immediately, are you OK? Exactly as you would expect him to be. It was all fine. And even in that even in that pain, all I was thinking about was right, we’ve got the pilgrimage and in half an hour we’ve got to be in chapel for our first visit to the Holy House. We’re here to pray to God to see our lady. That’s what we’re here to do. That’s what we must do, because I am here to love the Lord, my God, with all my heart, all my mind and all my soul.
That’s more important and actually this pain is a distraction and I must crack on. And so we went to the Holy house. I was in pain. I was utterly distracted from what was going on. But I was there and I’d done what I was there to do. I had been properly pious. I had loved the Lord thy God with all my heart or my mind and all my soul, but I hadn’t really prayed because I was completely distracted about this pain in my finger. Anyway off it passed and Rob was watching me out to the side of his eye through the whole thing and I could see that he knew exactly what was going on. And I had an inclination that at some point later in the pilgrimage, Rob would take me aside and told me that I should have gone and sorted that out and not worried about the praying.
Well, at dinner that evening, one of the one of the ladies at the table had really bad toothache, really bad, oh she was in so much pain. And so Rob cooked up a scheme to be able to get her to an emergency dentist in King’s Lynne the following morning.
And we made the phone calls all sorted. She was going to the emergency dentist the following morning. And I sat there and all I could think about was that the following morning we were meant to be doing the rosary walk around the garden. And that Rob, going off and taking this lady to the dentist was really going to cause a problem in the schedule that I devised for us on pilgrimage. We were there to pray. We were there to love the Lord, our God with all of our hearts and everything else had to go out the window.
But I didn’t show any of that that was what was going through my mind, but I didn’t think I showed any of my apprehension of the fact that we weren’t going to be able to do what we were there to do. And Rob got up from the dinner table as he was leaving and he just went over my shoulder, shoulder and he said, Father, charity before piety.
I have not had a more fundamental understanding of what it is that God calls us to do, what Jesus calls us to do than in that moment.
I was focused so much on the piety of what I was there to do, that I’d forgotten the love that we were called to share with one another. And in that moment, the right thing to do was to make sure that that lady was comfortable, wasn’t in pain, and could get her problem resolved. It wasn’t for us to walk around the rosary garden and say our prayers. It was to love that lady, to love that woman who was in pain.
That was what we were called to do in that moment, charity before piety. And since then, I have understood this piece of scripture in a way that I never did before. It just managed to reach inside me and change my whole outlook on life. That’s what this gospel is supposed to do today. It’s supposed to reach inside you and change your whole outlook on life. In fact, we have some help in understanding it in Exodus, and we have the story of if you take another’s cloak as a pledge, you must give it back to him before sunset.
Now, the justice in this is clear. If you have given your cloak over as a pledge against something and you don’t give that thing back, then you don’t get your clock back. I mean, the justice in this situation is clear. I have given you this in exchange for this. And if I don’t do that. You get to keep my cloak. That’s justice. No one is going to disagree if you take that into a court, you would be right.
You must give it back to him before sunset. It is all the covering he has. It is the cloak he wraps his body in. What else would he sleep in? So even though justice would have been on your side, it would not have been the right and loving thing to have done to withhold the only comfort that that man has. Does that make sense?
Do understand what’s going on there, do you get how fundamentally different that means that we have to live our lives?
The shift in what it means to be a Christian when charity comes before piety. It’s enormous and. I know it’s something that you understand, because last week you filled the altar with your gifts for the church larder – the cupboard at the back of church is now full. And it means that when people come in here in suffering and in pain and hurting and hungry, we can feed them and we can care for them. And in fact, if you’ve been watching the live stream of morning prayer this week, you will have seen people often come in right in the middle of morning prayer, asking for help and often sit with us and pray as we get ready to give them something to eat and drink.
Charity before piety.
Go home today. And read this gospel again. What does it mean to you day by day, what does it mean in your life? What have you done recently that this would have changed? What moment in your life over the last few weeks should there have been a person who lent over your shoulder and said charity before piety? And just keep that little voice on your shoulder, the voice of the Holy Spirit, as you live your life day to day.