Toorak Uniting Church

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The Simple Truth: Head Heart and Hands

Leviticus 19: 1 – 2 & 15 – 18  Matthew 22: 34 – 46
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
23 October 2011

"Those who work with their hands are laborers.
  Those who work with their hands and their heads are craftsman
  Those who work with their hands and their heads and their hearts are artists."

St. Francis of Assisi


Some years ago while living in Canada, I had the opportunity to visit a Shaker Village in New Hampshire. It was a museum showing shaker live in the 18th century. The Shakers were the precursors to the Quakers and got their name from the shaking they would be overcome by when the spirit descended on them often when they were in a communal dance. There monastic type life meant that they didn’t breed any descendants and there are in fact no shakers today. Today however they are most known for their music and furniture, particularly shaker chairs which some may have seen.

The mark of the Shaker was simplicity. The furniture that is made today in spirit of those early shakers has simple and uncomplicated lines. A curious aspect of the furniture that they make is that there is always a flaw in it. So that the craftsman won’t become so arrogant as to think that his creation rivals God’s in its perfection they will mark the chair after it’s been made. The other aspect of their legacy is in music. The lyrics and melody of "Simple gifts" is perhaps most well-known of the Shaker songs.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.
To turn, turn will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning we come round right.

The simplicity of life and religious practices of the Shakers and later the Quakers was in so measure a reaction to the over complex rituals of the Anglican and Catholic liturgy at the time. Added to that were the convoluted and complicated deliberations of clergy and theologians of the early 18th century. The Christian message shouldn’t be that complex. Surely it was spoken by a Palestinian peasant, to illiterate fisherman (and a few craftsmen) and grasped and accepted by the everyday people of the day. In fact, most of Jesus’ criticism was directed to the ruling religious class - the educated and the clever. So it seems fair that the Christian message should be spoken and heard in simple language and form.

The Simple Truth:
But there is an important caution here. Simple and simplicity is not the same as simplistic. There’s a saying that goes like this, "There a simple answer to every complex question and it is probably wrong." Better to understand this issue the way Oliver Wendell Holmes does when he says, "I would not give a fig for simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for simplicity on the other side of complexity." Simplicity, like all the great experience of life, can’t be just embraced because it seems a good idea. It is an experience of living that calls for commitment and a willingness to be shaped by so great a notion.

In part that’s the marvel of Jesus teaching and message, "a condition of complete simplicity" as TS Eliot writes in his poem Little Giddings, but as he goes on, "costing not less than everything."

Understanding the Law
Each of the encounters Jesus has with the religious leaders in Matthew’s Gospel centres around their defence of the complicated status quo vision of religion and Jesus’s call to a simpler form. We saw it last week in his call to the Kingdom of God over the Kingdom of Caesar and this week in the passage Shirley read this morning, where the religious leaders again attempt to trick Jesus into violating the law of the land.

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'

Matthew 22:34-46

Jesus goes to the heart of the tradition. His response is to reference back to the Jews laws and quote in the book of Leviticus. He goes to the heart of the book and collapses all the laws into this one, or rather this statement is front and centre. "Love the Lord your God with heart, mind and strength." I think the issue here for Jesus is that law moves from the inside out. The motivation of the heart precedes the imposition of regulation. I heard a woman on ABC radio this week use the aphorism, "you either build schools for boys or goals for men." The education of the heart, the soul and the mind precedes the enforcement of laws.

But let me put forward a more controversial notion, that when the soul, the mind and the heart are aligned with love – God’s love, then the person knows which regulations are to be obeyed and which can be disobeyed. Some time ago I read an interview with the linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky. The interviewer wrote about going to lunch with Chomsky. They meet in his New York office and walked to the restaurant. As they were to cross a road the light turned red. There were no cars in sight so the interviewer and several others crossed the road. On the other side the interviewer looked back and Noam Chomsky was still waiting to cross. When asked later about why he didn’t cross, he replied, "Not all laws are to be broken just because we have the freedom to do so.

Some have argued from this passage that Jesus is focusing on the idea that there is only one law – only one commandment to follow and that is the law of love. That is true. It fits with Augustine’s adage, "love God and do as you please." However, that would be simplistic and falls on the wrong side of complexity and really does help us in the living of our lives. Common sense tells us that human behaviour seeks and in fact enjoys a high degree of order. Disorder, disharmony, disruption maybe for a season, but our desire is for a state of harmony, peace and balance and good laws do provide that.

Head, Heart and Hand:
The ancient wisdom, first from the book of Leviticus and then on the lips of Jesus, puts loving God, the whole person and the other person at the centre of this encounter. Jesus didn’t stop at the Leviticus passage he brings another Leviticus passage into play:

"Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself."

Leviticus 19:18.

I am using the metaphor of Head Heart and Hand to pick up the centre of the message that Jesus is putting forth here. First, love God with your head. In fact it doesn’t matter where you start in your encounter with the God’s love provided you don’t stop there. Some of us think our way into the realm of God and that’s Ok. But if I stop there and my faith becomes one long argument defending the truth of my own thoughts and opinions and I start to believe that the more information I have the closer I am to God, then I have missed the point.

And we can love God with our hearts. That would be a good place to start. But again if I stop there and become convinced that the truth is only what I feel, that my experience is THE experience then I will live a truncated live. Or I could love through the things I do – the metaphor of the hand. But if I stop there and believe and act as if human beings are in fact human doings, then I will skate over the surface of life and never go deeper.

The simple truth that Jesus spoke to the law givers and to the religious authorities was that love is expressed through our whole being. There is no part of us that is not shaped and reshaped by the love of God. It doesn’t matter where you start; head, heart or hand as long as you journey into each of the other terrains. That truth is picked up from St Francis of Assisi on the cover of the Order of Service.

"Those who work with their hands are laborers.
Those who work with their hands and their heads are craftsman.
Those who work with their hands and their heads and their hearts are artists."

St. Francis of Assisi

Of course the other aspect is that you can’t command someone to love. "You will love me!! No it doesn’t work. It comes from the inside and then has its effect on our actions, attitudes and behaviours. And it can take time to be shaped by this love. Loving your neighbour doesn’t always happen immediately. I’ve had a few neighbours that it has taken some time to love or at least to like. But we know it is much larger than that.

Jesus takes us beyond regulations, legalism and the clever questions of religious leaders and keeps it simple.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,

No I won’t try to sing it, but I certainly do want to live it.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.