Thursday, May 17, 2012

Christianity Applied Chapter 1: The Two Commandments

Christianity Applied Chapter 1: The Two Commandments

Luke 10: (25)On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
(26)“What is written in the Law?” he replied. How do you read it?”
(27)He answered: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” 

You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. Do this and you will live.”

     It’s probably safe to say that you are all at least anecdotally aware of the Ten Commandments. Even if you can’t quite recite all ten of the “Thou Shalt Nots,” you can probably at least come up with not stealing from your neighbor, refraining from murder and a couple other highlights. If you can’t quote them all without whipping out your Old Testament, don’t worry. People in Jesus' time, who were a couple of thousand years closer to the original story, had trouble with the Ten, as well.

    In many ways, it seems Jesus came to simplify things for his followers. The original Ten Commandments were often interpreted fairly harshly, especially the one about not coveting your neighbor’s Ferrari . . .er, donkey. They also left a lot of room for interpretation.

    The first Commandment says, “You shall keep no gods before me.” This is a clear reference to the widespread polytheistic beliefs of ancient times, first of all, but in modern times we have come to question whether or not the things we spend the most time with have become the gods we put before God, as well. We make idols of all kinds of things, from extravagant housing to expensive cars, fishing trophies to country club memberships, Rush Limbaugh (or Keith Olbermann) to sports teams to our IRA retirement account to our kid's soccer team.  Our idol is whatever we invest a great deal of time, money, or effort into, that which is the determining factor in how we live our life. We all have idols and some of them can be really big idols.  Do we put our jobs before God, and if we do, is that breaking the first Commandment? Do we worship our possessions? Does moving the sermon up an hour to avoid running over an important football game constitute putting a pigskin god before God?

    It’s easy to see how this can start to get complicated, and it was no less complicated in Jesus’ time despite the lack of professional sports.
    The second Commandment starts off easy enough, with God saying that we shouldn’t worship any false idols, but then he goes on to say that if we were to bow down to some graven image he would punish “the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” according to Exodus 20:5. Really? If I pay homage to Joel Osteen then God will condemn my great, great grandchildren to hell? That might seem sensible enough to some, but also incredibly harsh to others. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty?

     What about Ezekial 18:20, which reads: “The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.”

    At times like this, where we have conflicting scriptural references, it’s important to remember that God is still speaking, giving us continuing revelations and a growing understanding of scripture.

    The third Commandment is fairly straightforward. “Contrary to popular opinion,” the bumper sticker says, “God’s last name is not Damn.” God would prefer we not use his name in vain. If you do it, God will not smile upon you. Got it.     

    Things start to get a little bit sticky when we get to Commandment four. This is where God tells is that the seventh day is holy, and while there is somewhat of an argument at least on the fringes of the Christian community as to whether Saturday or Sunday is the seventh day, there is almost a consensus that it’s now perfectly fine to work on either one or both of those days. The idea of taking a day of rest is almost as archaic as the idea that God actually, literally created the world in six days. What’s more, much of the working class simply can’t afford the luxury of a day off.

     Consider Mark 2:27: Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” The point is that the Sabbath was a gift to people, not a burden, and the time for rest and renewal included servants, strangers, slaves, and even work animals. When the working class cannot afford a day off each week, that's a sure sign that wages are inhumane.

     Things get a bit easier after that. Commandment five tells us to honor our parents, which is really not all that hard to do before and, especially, after puberty. After that we’re Commanded not to steal, not to commit adultery and not to bear false testimony against our neighbors. Some may find these commandments hard to follow, but they are not at all hard to understand.

    The final Commandment is about envy, and while it speaks of donkeys where we use cars, the gist is that we should not covet our neighbor’s possessions. This one can be particularly difficult, especially living in the United States of America, where our entire culture and economy is based on the business of envy. They may not have had flat screen TVs or luxury cars in Jesus’ time, but there was plenty of envy to go around, nonetheless.

    Needless to say, there was plenty of wiggle room in terms of interpreting the Ten Commandments, and people were wiggling all over the place. Jesus encounters a group of men who have arbitrarily decided that adultery is a more severe (or more clear cut) sin than others, and they are about the task of stoning a woman for the offense. Jesus points out that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, and the stones ultimately go unthrown.

    This is one example, but it was a common theme. Not unlike today, back then people were very busily interpreting the Ten Commandments in whichever way they saw fit and in whichever way gave them some advantage over others. For that reason, primarily, Jesus came to remind his fellow Jews of the core motivation and attitude of the law.  He was, after all, quoting from the ancient scrolls:
(Deuteronomy 6) 4Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  5You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.

             (Leviticus 19) 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Here’s Jesus’ take:

            (Mark 12) 29The most important (Commandment),” answered Jesus, is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
            Similarly, in Luke 10, Jesus told a man who asked him the path to salvation that he was correct in saying it was this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.”
            Finally, when the Pharisees tried to corner Jesus on the subject of God’s greatest Commandment, Jesus answered simply: (Matthew 22:37) "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All of Moses' Teachings and the Prophets depend on these two commandments."
     The Two Commandment story was seen as so important that it was included by all three synoptic gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke).

    The last part of Jesus’ answer sometimes goes unnoticed or even unread, but it may be the most important part of the whole passage. The rest of the Commandments are based on these two. If you’re loving your neighbor as yourself you are extremely unlikely to envy his wife or his car. You’re extremely unlikely to murder him, bear false witness against him, steal from him, or dishonor him. If you love God with your heart, soul and mind, you won’t take his name in vain, you won’t fail to take time out to honor him – be that time on Sunday, Saturday or some other day – nor would you place other gods before him.

    This is at the core of the whole issue.  When we are motivated by love – and love is an action verb – then our attitude toward God and neighbor will be seen in how we treat ourselves, each other, and even God's property (all of creation or all of the universe, if you prefer). It is when we turn all of this into legalistic specifics that we lose attitude and motivation, and seek to rigidly follow rules. In a silly, but actual example, wanting to show respect for God and to show how important taking time to worship God was, people dressed up just as they did for other important events.  You wouldn't wear your bib overalls to meet the governor of the state or for your daughter's wedding, would you?  But it's a very quick transition to you have to dress up to go to church or you can't go.  It's easy to shift from showing respect for God to trying to show up your neighbor by wearing finer clothes.  Focusing on minute adherence to rules, written or unwritten, can sour love and turn it into self-righteousness.

     You see, as today, people in Jesus’ time struggled mightily with the Ten Commandments, and they were constantly looking for ways to justify themselves and empower themselves by using those Commandments as a means to an end. When Jesus came and reminded us of the Two Commandments upon which all other Commandments are based, he made it much more straightforward.           
     People still try to use religion as  a way to judge others and to empower themselves, but in reading and understanding Jesus’ most simple laws we can cast aside those attempts as clear violations of not only the spirit of Jesus’ teachings, but of the letters of his teachings, as well.
      Looking at the law of love as being an innate, basic, not-at-all-an-option law just like the law of gravity, is a helpful way of thinking about this.  This isn't a new law imposed from above, but an insight into how life works and how we can live in harmony with the universe and our fellow travelers in life.  It isn't a burden, but a key to happier living.  Note that Jesus said, "Do this and you will live.
Don't do it, and life will have more suffering and less living.

--- Co-authored by Reverend Michael E. Lamm, First Presbyterian Church of Thomasville, NC


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