There are limits

September 16, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Ex 18.13-26, Matt 7.1-14, at Mattins on Sunday 16th September 2018, the sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.

There are limits!

Maybe not limits for everything, but limits nonetheless.

On the unlimited side, Christians would have to put forgiveness. Not seven times, but seventy times seven – a number almost beyond reckoning. But if you believe you’ve managed to forgive 490 times, then aim for seventy times ‘seventy times seven’. Those boasting of that would be so full of pride as to deserve the lowest place in hell!

Even then, forgiveness does not come cheap; it’s never the same as wiping the slate clean. At the moment Parliament is considering a radical revision of divorce law, and it’s surely right to reduce the acrimony involved in separation. What the debate disguises, though, is work the law cannot effect, the painful work of moving on in a way that’s based on restoration and renewal rather than fleeing from responsibility, pain and failure. Forgiveness is costly; we simply have to look to the cross of Jesus Christ to understand that.

Limits are more apparent elsewhere, imposed or accepted for various reasons. It’s difficult not to hear the advice of Moses’s father-in-law as a limit taken straight from the manual of business management: Moses is exhausting himself acting as judge and jury of his people. He should allow trusted elders to try the less demanding cases, leaving him with only the harder ones.

What remains for Moses is in no sense an easy job, but it is at least possible, with sufficient wisdom and resilience. (We ought to pray for the senior judges who stay at No 4 as they preside over the most testing cases, usually the most gruesome of murders. We will see them here at Law Sunday Mattins next month.)

However, the limitation accepted by Moses on his leadership is not just about him. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that this delegation of authority recognises a theological truth: Israel is one nation under God, and therefore the whole nation is called to responsibility and leadership. The forms of governance adopted by Israel were not unique and indeed changed over time, but as a direct consequence of their vision of God as the sole Ruler, they believed that earthly leadership should be delegated and distributed.

Those of you inclined to calculate will be interested that here 131 leaders were set over every 1000 Israelites, which means that one in eight of the male population was expected to undertake this form of leadership.

This limit on what Moses could do, then, said something about his resources and his role, but also something about God’s people It changed the nature of the boundary between him and them.

We’ll return to Moses later, but on the theme of limits let’s take a nibble at the second lesson and the enigmatic saying about pearls before swine.

Do not give what is holy to the dogs,

And do not throw your pearls before the pigs,

So that they will not trample them with their feet and turn and tear you to pieces.


It’s easy to understand the gist: there’s danger in being too generous to the wrong types – here spoken of metaphorically. Dogs and pigs were not beasts of favour among the Jews. Dog were seen as semi-wild scavengers, and treated rather as we would treat foxes. Pigs were ritually unclean to Jews, and needed to be kept at a distance. No-one would be mad enough to toss their most precious treasure in their direction; it would be like pouring your wealth straight down the drain.

But what does the saying mean, and what exactly is it warning against? The truth is that nobody knows either what Jesus meant by it or what it meant to the community who first read Matthew’s Gospel. We suppose that Matthew included it because he faithfully preserved it from one of his sources.

Sadly, it has been used in history to set up barriers against assorted enemies of the Church – Gentiles, heretics, the unbaptised and unbelievers – to justify its stances against them; but we do not know whether these were the limits intended, all we know is that this passage was supposed to protect the church against losing its saltiness in the world.

Today I want to set this principle of finding good boundaries against the sad news of the decline in church affiliation. The headline is that not only are congregations in the Church of England shrinking but so is the number of people who identify with the Church, especially in the middle-aged range.

The Church is responding by trying to reach out in bolder and more prophetic ways. Just this last week Archbishop Justin Welby has been in the news. His contribution to the new report by the Commission on Economic Justice was followed by an appearance at the Trades Union Congress. It shows that caring about the common good, and offering sound and well informed argument, can earn us a place at the table.

However, we have to set our house in order to be effective: are we through our own investments supporting zero-hours contracts? Does the Church as an employer succeed in paying everyone a living wage? These are sharp questions, which will prove whether our commitment to the common good is genuine or not. Sometimes our critics and detractors have valuable insights to throw back at us – the pigs!

So this place of limit and borderline, between Church and Society, is an interesting place to stand. The Church currently draws a strong limit over who can receive the sacrament of marriage. In society gay people can marry, in our Church they can’t. The Church is undoubtedly in a cleft stick over this, torn between the views of the majority of the worldwide Anglican Communion and the majority of the liberal society it claims to serve. Whatever your view, it seems a deep shame that currently this one limit appears to be the only obvious boundary marker of the Church.

There are other ways of defining limits, however, for example by vision and values. This is what we are attempting in the Cathedral. We have our vision, ‘to renew, inspire and unite people in faith, hope and love’ – ‘people’ you notice, not simply the congregation of the faithful – and now we are looking to define our shared values. We are asking various groups, most recently the staff, who put ‘kindness’ top followed by ‘inclusiveness and openness’. Values don’t limit what is done, but they do limit how things are done; they give an institution its character or ethos.

I believe that in the years to come the distinctiveness of the Church will be won not so much by the limits it puts on belief or practice – that would be difficult with such a heavy stress now being laid on the values of diversity and inclusion – but our distinctiveness will be shown in the Spirit of how we act, in the strength and integrity of our convictions.

Archbishop Welby is not a modern day Moses, and even if he were, he would not be our ruler, because God alone rules us. We share this insight with Israel. But what a difference it would make if the Church could grow more deeply in prophetic Spirit, if we became more able to take risks at the edges and limits, while guarding the centre of faith in prayer and attentiveness to God.