October 31, 2021 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
Our nation, its states and cities, have a lot of whacky laws on the books. Did you know that in Alaska it is illegal to push a live moose out of a moving plane? In Rehobeth Beach, Delaware if Halloween falls on a Sunday, as it does today, there will be no trick-or-treating on that Sunday. The trick-or-treating must take place on All Hallows Eve Eve. In Florida, if an elephant is left tied to a parking meter, the parking fee has to be paid just as it would if the elephant was a vehicle. In Connecticut, a pickle is only fit for human consumption if, when dropped from a height of one foot, the pickle bounces. In Alabama, it is illegal for a driver to be blindfolded while driving a vehicle. In Iowa, a landlocked state, it is illegal to surf while intoxicated. You just can’t make this stuff up! And this is only a sampling of the weird and whacky laws out there!
Most laws trace their genesis to a need to protect someone from something. Maybe fifty years ago, some gold miner was minding his own business outside of Nome, Alaska, when he was killed by a moose falling from the sky, and lawmakers vowed that it would never happen again. Today, we can bring no more than 3 oz. of shampoo, toothpaste, or lotion onto a commercial aircraft because they might be used to concoct a bomb. Fifty years from now, that might seem as silly as all the other laws I just mentioned. That’s the thing about laws; at one time, they made perfect sense to someone.
So, when one considers the laws of first-century Israel, we must cut them some slack. For example, when we read that we should “remember the sabbath day and keep it holy,” we wonder why the Jews could not even bandage in injured arm, or assist a woman in labor, or rescue someone who had fallen in a well on the sabbath. When we hear that ceremonial washing meant that diners needed to wash from their fingertips to their elbows before and after every course of a seven-course meal, we scratch our heads. And why on earth could a man divorce his wife for burning his dinner? Why is mixing meat and dairy forbidden from consumption by Jews – outlawing a cheeseburger? We don’t intend to mock these laws; they are just difficult for us to understand.
In today’s gospel text, a teacher of the law quizzed Jesus on his knowledge of the Jewish catechism. “Rabbi, of all of the c0mmandments, which one is most important?” The list of possibilities is great, for there are 612 commandments in the rabbinical law. The question does not seem to be a set-up, but rather a typical dialogue between two theologians in a public forum. And Jesus and the teacher agree that the most important commandment does not deal with washing or eating or resting rituals of Judaism, but rather, with LOVE. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” I love the way that Eugene Peterson paraphrases this, as he says, “so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”
For the greatest commandment, Jesus directs the attention of the law professor and those listening to one of the commandments that Moses received and shared with the Hebrews, about how to live in the world and in community. These words are found in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy in our Bibles, and would have been included in the faithful Jew’s daily prayers. But Jesus himself adds the second commandment. Love your neighbor as yourself. It sounds like the theological and theoretical foundation for the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” But the motivation for this is LOVE. And the only way humans can love God fully and love neighbors fully, is to bestow the blessings of trust, care, respect.
The commandments sound so simple on the surface. Yet, as contemporary faith followers of Jesus, the struggle to live fully into these commandments is apparent throughout our society. If loving God with our heart, mind, soul, and strength were easy, then there would be no room for doubt. When difficulties or disease arise, when difficult decisions need to be made, loving God with all our passion and prayer and intelligence and energy seems to give way to doubt.
Seminary professor Dick Lowey said that the tension between law and gospel is a necessary struggle in the Christian life. He likened it to a violin, which needs to have the strings pulled tightly in both directions in order to play beautiful music; release the tension on either end, and the music is gone. And the “music” of course, is love. When we love God, we gladly accept God’s gift of grace that frees us from the penalty of our sins. But when we love God, we also want to please God with our faithfulness and obedience.
So, really, its all about LOVE, not laws.
There is a wonderful legend of John the apostle, the last living disciple of Jesus. There was a gathering of the church, and out of respect, the convener asked if John had anything to bring to the gathering. Slowly, painfully, John made his way to the podium and said, “Love one another” and then he sat down. The leader stood up and said, “Brother John, is there anything else you would like to tell us?” Again, with great effort, this elder statesman of the church arose, and took his place at the podium: “Love one another,” he said. And he sat down.
When the meeting had ended, a young man in the congregation approached him and said “Brother John, why do you continually say that we should love one another?” And John smiled and said “Because, son, if we would do only this, it would be enough.”
In a world full of laws and legalism, church schisms and furious debate, theological positions and doctrinal stands, perhaps the missing ingredient all along has been that commandments upon which Jesus and the teacher agreed so many years ago: that we simply love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. I wonder what that kind of world would look like? I am going to do what I can to find out! Thanks be to God. Amen.