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Proving the Rule

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon for Sexagesima

Is it ever acceptable to run a red light? Punch someone on the nose? Steal a loaf of bread? Commit adultery?

They say that exceptions prove the rule, but what exactly does that mean?


We have the idea that “prove” means showing something to be right, but that is not quite what it means. It’s related to the word “probe” meaning to examine, test or try something out. To prove a rule means to see just how far it works before it breaks down.

The law says we must stop at a red light, and yet there are exceptions. The reasons for not stopping at a red light must outweigh the reasons to stop at a red light. Likewise, punching someone on the nose is acceptable in some situations, like boxing. But what about stealing or committing adultery?

Again we can think of situations where stealing might be very easily forgivable, but adultery is difficult to be so tolerant. You can steal out of dire necessity, in which case the sin of stealing is of much less weight than those who have caused the dire necessity. But is there a dire necessity for adultery?

Stealing and adultery are contrary to God’s commandments and therefore sinful, but the degree of sin depends very much on circumstances. The same is true for all sin: not all sin is sin unto death, as St John reminds us but it does not stop the sin from being sinful. All sin drives a wedge between us and God.


Consider our Lenten fasting. We break the fast whether we have a three-course meal or a surreptitious smartie. Indeed, there is no legal compulsion for us to fast at all during Lent. The only reason that we should do so should be our desire to get closer to God. Yet, there is no point in fasting if we’re not going to do anything about the sins that separate us from God. Fasting might help us to control ourselves and help our spirits wage a better war against our lusts of the flesh but we do need to take stock of how we separate ourselves from God.

St Paul warns the Corinthians that we can drink the same spiritual drink from the Rock that is Christ but if we’re going to make exceptions from living the Christian life, then we will perish in the wilderness just as the Hebrews did in their Exodus from Egypt.

If we think that we’re okay, then we need to take heed lest we fall.


One of the great temptations we face from the Devil is “it’s only a little thing, God won’t mind this little exception.” We can pinch one of someone else’s biscuits or cast a lascivious eye over some scantily clad woman in a magazine but these can never be rewards for doing something good. The trivialisation of sin has been our problem from the very Fall itself – “it’s only one little apple, Eve!”

This is why we must pray that we do not allow ourselves to think that we are bigger than temptation. We should know that we cannot stand when we are tempted unless given the grace of God to withstand that temptation. But God wouldn’t lead us into temptation, would he?

Oh yes, He would!


He would do so if we were so arrogant as to believe that we have no sin. He would force us to look at the exceptions that we make to His rule by suffering their natural consequences so that we might turn and repent. We see that time and time again in the Bible, and time and time again in our lives.

If we are serious in praying to God, “lead us not into temptation” then we need to play our part by noting how vulnerable we are to being tempted and relying on God to find the way out. We will fall into sin again and again but this does not stop God from being willing to forgive us. It just means we have to repent again and again and try and do something about our tendency to sin.


It is not God’s Rule that needs to be proved by exceptions, it’s the exceptions that we make that need to be proved by God’s Rule. We have to remember that God’s Law is good for us, especially in an age in which we are being tempted to see it as restrictive, soul-destroying and even inhumane. God’s Law is restrictive: it binds sin away from us. God’s Law is not soul-destroying: it reinforces the soul against the lusts of the body. God’s Law is not inhumane: it is for our growth to become the human beings He created us to be, reunited with Him in Eternity.

It is our love of God which needs to be proved: we already have proof of God’s love for us.

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