It's a challenging old passage, to be sure, in which Jesus takes the Old Testament commandments and adds his own twist. And it's worth noticing that Jesus is doing the opposite to what we are frequently told he did.
You know the old story - that the Jewish people were so oppressed by the Law, so busy carrying their burdens, spending so much of their lives measuring out tenths of everything, so desperate to walk a couple of extra stadia on the Sabbath if the weather was nice - that the Gospel came as a fantastic release. In that kind of narrative, it's a wonder the Jews didn't just give up, wholesale, and head for the hills with the Baal-worshippers and Beaker Folk. And yes, I know some of them did. But consider - the prophets weren't going to waste their time denouncing the nice people. They were going to be moaning about the bad ones - they were like the Michael Goves of their times, driven by a message and determined to make things better and bring justice and fairness to everybody. So maybe not as much like Michael Gove as I thought when I started that simile, to be fair.
Instead, consider the words of Psalm 119:
Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end.
Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.
Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight.
Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain.
Turn my eyes away from worthless things, preserve my life according to your word.
Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared.
Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good.
How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life.
So I don't reckon the Psalmist's sounding so crushed there? Weighed down by the commandments? Struggling with a sense of sin? Nope. Loving it, wishing to hear the Lord's commands. Generally living the Torahic dream.
And Jesus comes along and, contrary to what we're often told, makes it all a lot more difficult. Did he misunderstand his mission, the more antinomian of us might ask? We can get along - most of us - from day to day without murdering anybody, or sleeping with somebody else's partner. Mostly. But you've set the bar too high, here, Jesus. How can we get to the point of not thinking somebody's a fool, or not even looking at somebody, thinking you wouldn't mind, and then deciding you'd better not as the other half would kill you? And also, the object of lust concerned is twenty years younger, far more attractive than you, and more likely to water-ski across the Somerset Levels pulled on silver cords by unicorns than look at you?
But Jesus is at the root of the matter here - of course. He would be, wouldn't he?
In fact, not committing adultery on a daily basis isn't that hard. It takes a real failure of self-discipline to go committing adultery. Likewise, not killing people on a daily basis isn't hard. Mostly we go whole weeks on end without murdering anyone. Generally, you've got to have some mental disability - or else be seriously evil, which is a totally different thing - to go killing people. We just don't do it.
But putting somebody down - we do that all the time. Thinking the person who's driving at 30mph down the road from Ridgmont for no apparent reason should be banned from the road - that's something we do. In fact, that's how we manage to justify it. Being British, we tend to avoid telling people to their faces that they're fools, cheats, wallies or talking drivel. It's not the way we do things - unless we are at a football match and the person concerned is dressed in black. Oh no. We like to make sure that the people we think these things of are slightly disconnected from us.
- So if somebody is driving, and we are driving, it's OK to think what we like about them.
- If we've never actually met them, but they are from another country and looking for a job - that's fine.
- If they're in the office, but not actually in front of us - we can say what we like.
And if they're in the same church, the place where we should show most charity, the place where everybody should love each other, the place where we all worship the same God who - from a cross - asked forgiveness for the people who put him there - then naturally we're not going to go fighting and hating each other, are we?
At least, not too openly. Let's face it, if we took Jesus literally we might argue that, if we think someone is a fool, we should save ourselves the trouble and just kill them. But we wouldn't do that. We're British, after all.
Christianity could die out in England. It could. It won't happen for a long time - the believers from Eastern Europe and the developing world, all of whom come here - so the conventional wisdom has it - to claim dole and steal our jobs and use our Health Service - will make sure of that.
But one day, it will. If only because the world will die one day, if only because this country becomes uninhabitable - or maybe because the way Christians live their lives becomes incredible to normal people.
Let's call the last two Christians in England Maurice and Vera. I don't know why. Not married - just the last two of this grand old body of children, women and men to inhabit this lump of rock.
I'd like to think that the last think that passes between thos last two Christians in England, would be the reflection that, after all, God is with us, that God loves us, and that the important thing is not whether something is successful, but whether or not it is true.
I have a fear that the last thing will actually be, that Maurice will attempt to score a point over Vera. Maurice will remark that, after all, if the Church had moved with the times - like he had always been saying - then it would have survived. Vera will counter that, if the Church had stayed true to the Rock on which it was built, and if it had clung fast to the old ways - then it would have flourished. Maurice will point out to Vera that, in the leaflet for the last-ever Old-Form Mass that was conducted, while there was still a Catholic Priest left to preside, there was a spelling mistake and they had solemnly recited the "Agnes Dei". Then he will die with a smirk on his face. And Vera will get her revenge by getting the words "Requesciat in pace" inscribed on his Protestant headstone.
Isn't this what Jesus is trying to tell us? Getting the big things wrong, given the right mental state and a bit of discipline, is quite easy to avoid. But getting the little things right - that's tricky. We can hypothetically love our neighbour, but that doesn't stop us thinking they're a bit of a prat. We won't bash their head in, but we'll quietly patronise the life out of them, obstruct the things they'll like to do, demand cheap Tesco tea if they want Fairtrade (got to look after Church funds), ensure they don't sit too near to us in Church, cunningly dive behind a pew when we could be sharing the Peace with them, agree to their face that their desire for mission is essential - then go home and denounce them as a fanatic.
It's a real challenge, is this stuff Jesus came up with. Like, even going to Church is something we shouldn't do if we're not right with our neighbours. Like, not thinking our neighbours are twits, even when they self-evidently are. Like, just being people who can be taken at our words, and not resorting to twisting what we mean, or getting it half-right, or crossing our fingers or whatever.
You know, on the whole, I reckon we're gonna fail. Let's just hope it's not us that does the judging. We'd never let us off.
* Just what is a tittle? Is it a very small garden bird? Or something else?