Sermon: More Old Testament Than New Testament?

A Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2021, preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church

Matthew 5:38-48

When it comes to war and peace we are much more Old Testament than New Testament, which is not to be critical of the Old Testament.

If you are subjected to violence, the Bible’s Old Testament demands restraint. If someone punches you in the face, you do not respond by killing them and everyone they love. Instead, you must be proportionate. To quote the Book of Exodus, as echoed by both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.’ (Exodus 23-25; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21) It’s this tradition that Jesus references in the Sermon on the Mount.

In Old Testament times proportionate retribution would be carried out by the individuals, families, or clans that had suffered attack and loss. These days, we put this into the hands of government; our courts, legal systems, and on occasion, military forces. In September 2001, when almost three thousand people were killed in the suicide attacks that brought down the Twin Towers in New York City, pretty well everyone accepted that the U.S. government would retaliate militarily, though with an understanding that the response should be proportionate.

That the U.S., and its supporters, including the UK, would retaliate against the government of the country where the 9/11 attackers had been sheltered and trained – the Taliban regime in Afghanistan – seemed reasonable. Yet it turned into a twenty-year military campaign in which the Afghan government was overthrown; somewhere around one hundred and ten thousand Afghan people killed; two and a half thousand U.S. troops; and let us remember today, four hundred and fifty of our own service men and women. Today, Afghanistan is in turmoil, and a major famine is in prospect.

Whoever receives an initial hurt, it seems hard to respond in a proportionate way. That’s why the Old Testament scripture calls for restraint – only an eye for an eye, only a tooth for a tooth. Also, the Old Testament contains the positive command to love the other: ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Leviticus 19:34) For Jesus, that command, along with the one, to love God, forms the basis for the life of faith. (Matthew 22:37-39)

All the same, as Jesus knew, we have a tendency to define ‘neighbour’ in terms of people we see as like ourselves. When he said, ‘ you have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ Jesus was both quoting and not quoting the Hebrew scriptures. He was quoting them with ‘ you shall love your neighbour’ – Leviticus 19 – but nowhere in the Old Testament does it demand that you hate your enemy

Instead Jesus was referring to a human disposition i.e. when you identify someone as your neighbour – perhaps people of your nation – for the purposes of loving them, you then tend to see others (whoever they are) as not so worthy of love. So, when planning this sermon I remembered four hundred and fifty British service men and women had died in Afghanistan over the last two decades; I knew I’d heard somewhere how many American service personnel had die; I had no idea that over one hundred thousand Afghans had died. Such ignorance says nothing about the value of an Afghan life in comparison to an American or British one; it says a lot about who I had identified as my neighbour. All neighbours were equal, but some more equal than others.

This biblical call to only make a proportionate response to violence suffered is an essential element of what’s called ‘just war theory’. According to this Christian philosophical tradition, you can only justly go to war if you have a just cause, if it’s a last resort, if the war’s declared by a lawful authority, if it’s pursued with a right intention and a reasonable chance of success, and if the end is proportional to the means used. And that approach, partly grounded in the Bible, has made some contribution to avoiding and restraining warfare. It might be the best that humankind can manage by themselves.

For Christians though, though just war theory emerged from historic Christianity, there’s a problem. And that problem is Jesus. Jesus says, ‘you have heard it was said [in our Hebrew scripture], an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I say to you, Do no resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also (5:38-39) … You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those that hate you.’ (5:43-44) This does not fit well with ideas of proportionate response, even when it’s dressed up as just war theory.

Instead, Jesus looks at it from a divine perspective. From God’s point of view we are all equally cherished. When we recognise that we have to acknowledge that we are all equally neighbours. In fact, Jesus grounds how we should love our enemies and pray for our persecutors in our shared membership of God’s family: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;  for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.’ (5:44-45)

I began by saying that when it comes to war and peace we are more Old Testament than New Testament. It’s good when we manage to put a biblical brake on the horror of conflict and warfare, through being proportionate in how we respond to others. Today, however, to remember not only tragic deaths in the previous century’s wars, but also those who have died in other conflicts in much more recent times. It’s clear that this approach will never rid us of war.

Jesus’s stronger, radical call to love one’s enemies, if followed by all, would put an end to wars, but we can’t be at all confident that everyone will follow Jesus here, not even we who claim to be his followers. Yes, Jesus said, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (5:48), but we know we’re not perfect, and we don’t expect to be either. Part of today’s sadness lies not just with contemplating the waste of war and remembering lost lives. It resides in recognising our continuing failure to be the people that God calls us to be.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is to strive to be proportionate, in a good Old Testament Way, and do our best to be more loving of our enemies, in a New Testament, Jesus-like way; and to hope that God, our heavenly parent, who is perfectly loving, will forgive us our failings. After all, this is the God who makes the sun to shine on us, both in our evil and our good, who sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Yes, we are all God’s children, thank God.

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