I had an interesting conversation with a guest at Susan Sawyers and George Pattons wedding yesterday. I didnt get the mans name but we talked about the state of the Church in society, a topic that is often raised by those who once had a connection with the church but now find other ways to meet their spiritual needs. In the process of the conversation we talked about what in the Christian tradition should be kept and what needs to be abandoned. Well, I cant say that we came to any definitive conclusions, except that there was a definite agreement that something of the tradition has real value and should be passed on to the next generation and that the church is one of the few places in our society where virtues, values and a sense of awe and wonder are nurtured and honoured. But of course it has to be "packaged", to use a crass term, in a way that captures the imagination of this, but perhaps more importantly, the next generation.
So we come to the reading this morning in Marks Gospel which I suspect most have heard many times before:
"Teacher, of all the commandments, which is the most important?"
"The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.
The devoted often want to know, "What is the most important thing I should believe? Should it be this or that?" So this man in the story comes to an authority on the subject and comes looking for an answer. Think about this: he is asking a complex mathematical question and Jesus gives him a simple non-complicated answer. Now stay with me on this. He is asking a question that involves a set of numbers and in Marks narrative Jesus gives his answer, which is: 619 is reduced to 10 and then excised to produce 2 and the answer is 1.
How Many Laws are There?
The Talmud is the basis of rabbinical law. It was produced, at least it its somewhat final form, by about 200BCE, so some time before the birth of Jesus. The Talmud, which ranges to 6,200 pages, records that there are 619 laws in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. So the questioner begins by asking which of the 619 laws is the most important. Now by the time of Jesus the Jewish ethical code was substantial, expressed in what we call the 10 commandments, or more accurately the 10 words of God. But Jesus in his answer doesnt choose one of the 10 commandments as the most important; instead, he takes the questioner back to the book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 6) and quotes the passage we just read, Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' And then adds to it a verse from the book of Leviticus, And love your neighbour as yourself. And I would suggest it comes down to the mathematical conclusion that while there are two commandments to be followed, says Jesus, there is in reality one word that names both of them and that is love!
Jesus was a reformer, a sage and wise person. He considered the religious tradition that was passed on to him and made a decision about what was of value to keep and what had once been of value but now was irrelevant. They are hard words for the traditionalist to hear. There is often a desire to keep everything. The 10 commandments are an example. But here Jesus does not quote them. They are of course of great value within our historic tradition, but Jesus profound commitment to love caused him to seek truth in another part of his tradition.
I love the story of the elderly woman in a southern church in the USA who was opposed to the display of the Ten Commandments on the wall of her church. This perplexed other members of the congregation. So she was asked for her reasons. "Well," she said, "I just dont think you should give any of those young-uns ideas they haven't thought about yet." I do wonder at times why people think that a return to the 10 commandments would salvage western society when we have on the lips of Jesus the answer to the "salvation" of our world.
Do Commandments Change Us?
I dont think it is commandments that we seek today. True, we need to live by an ethic, a life-giving story, some guiding principles, but rules I dont think will cut it. One of the readings from Susans wedding yesterday was this one, which in a secular way reflects the words of Jesus, from English philosopher A.C. Grayling:
Shall we ask, by what commandments should we live?
Or might we better ask, each of ourselves:
What kind of person should I be?
The first question assumes that there is one right answer.
The second assumes that there are many right answers.
If we ask how to answer the second question, we are answered in yet other questions:
What should you do when you see another suffering, or in need, afraid, or hungry?
What causes are worthy, what world do you dream of where your child plays safely in the street?
There are many such questions, some already their own answer, some unanswerable.
But when all the answers to all the questions are summed together, no one hears less than this:
Love well; seek the good in all things; harm no others; think for yourself; take responsibility; respect nature; do your utmost; be informed; be kind; be courageous at least sincerely try.
Add to these ten injunctions, this:
O friends, let us always be true to ourselves and to the best in things, so that we can always be true to one another.
(Chapter 8 of The Good, from The Good Book, A Secular Bible)
Thats the stuff that we need to keep and pass on to the next generation. The words and symbols my change but the beating heart that keeps this love alive is more valuable that lesser rules and instructions.
But it is not only words that we have to evaluate, it is also the symbols, rituals and physicality of our faith that must be evaluated, and painfully at times discarded. Wisdom and courage are needed in this process.
A favourite story of mine which comes from the 19th Century European Jewish Hasidic tradition, and some may have heard this story before, picks up the need to shift with the changes around us. It goes like this:
When the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer
When, a generation later, the Maggid of Meseritz was faced with the same task, he would go into the woods, to the same place and say: "We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers" and what he wanted done was done.
A generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform the task. He too went into the woods and said: "We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it belongs, and that must be sufficient." And sufficient it was.
But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his chair in his study and said: "We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done." And, the storyteller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.
Can Love Suffice?
Why did it have the same effect? Because the essence had not been lost. All that surrounded this ritual had passed away, but the truth and commitment to the life-giving story remained. How many commandments or laws are there? How many laws are there in Australia? Someone suggested 9,000 . I suspect that unwittingly we break at least one a day. But this passage and these words of Jesus seek another way to codify our ethics and our behaviour. Love the things that are of God, and your neighbour as yourself. And that will suffice!!