The Great Commandment Is Not: Thou Shalt Be Right!
Psalm 1; Matthew 22:34-46
The Psalms open up the celebration of God in poetry and song. There is a theory that the Psalms were originally a hymn book, where the lyrics are written out, but the you were expected to know the tunes. Another theory is that the Psalm tunes were more like the ancient chants of the religious communities, where there were musical structures that served all of the scriptures and any could be “read” in a singing voice.
I went to a “minor seminary” for High School. We lived in community under a modified version of the Order of St. Benedict, which is the model for life in most Roman Catholic religious orders, that prescribes a code of limited personal space, property, and decency. One of the highlights for how we practiced the rule, was to be silent after the final prayer in the community in the evening. That, “Grand Silence” was observed, except for directions during work periods, through prayer and breakfast, until the close of the first class session and outdoor recess.
On Sunday nights, we would gather in the chapel with the priests and brothers, and we would sing the evening prayers, one side of the chapel singing the odd verses, and the other side of the chapel answering with the even verses, in dim light, voices raised, without instrumentation.
The chants were in the smooth round syllables of church Latin, easy to interpret, and always rich in the open vowel sounds. “In Nomine, Nomine Domini.” It was easy to have your spirit quieted and lifted in such a circumstance. I have never found anything comparable except maybe the use of Taze’ hymns during Lenten contemplative services.
The Psalms are related to David. The tradition is to say that David “wrote” the psalms. It is likely that many of them existed long before David, handed down in an oral tradition. The reign of David did establish a level of normalcy that was beyond what had been known in the land of tribes in perpetual skirmishes. By unifying the North and the South, David was able to establish a kind of peace. This domestic peace permitted and encouraged a regular and consistent routine of worship and the establishment of Holy Days. The Psalms are all about regular worship.
There is increasing evidence, or perhaps it might be better to say, there is an increasing assumption in the academic world, that the written form of all of the Bible only dates to the period around the Babylonian Exile. In fact, it is hard to find evidence that the Hebrew people developed a clear set of expectations for literature and how to represent it physically before that time. Since all of the technology for writing and preserving the written word were so short lived, it is quite unlikely we will unearth archeological examples that predate the pieces already in existence. Speculation is that the Hebrew people acquired the technology for writing during the Exile, from 600 to 538 BCE.
All of that permits us to speculate on the freedom allowed by the early scribes in capturing and recording the several variations of those stories that existed in the community. And a more sophisticated theory now traces a potential for editing and redacting the drafts in the hands of the priests of the newly reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem after the Exile.
When Jesus debates with the scribes and teachers in the Temple, they do not get hung up on issues of authenticity or authorship. The scriptures point to the God of Creation, and serve as a guide or rule to living on earth in a manner that would please that God.
In the Old Testament, the rabbis had counted 613 commands; 248 positive commands - that corresponded to the known parts of the human body; and 365 negative commands, that correspond to the days of the year. One school of thought declared that all laws were equal in the eyes of God, and any ordering was a temptation towards human sin.
Since this story sits within Matthew’s recalling of three tests of Jesus in the Temple, (sort of reminds us of the temptations by the devil in the wilderness at the start of his ministry) we might suspect that the question posed here was intentionally a setup to have Jesus misspeak. The Greek text actually says the lawyer was “tempting” Jesus. In Luke’s telling of this story, Jesus asks the questioner to offer his own answer, and then confirms it. In Matthew, he is establishing the authority of Jesus to interpret the scriptures and speak for the will of God.
The presumption is that the Temple held claim to the authority “over” the scriptures. If the scriptures were a product of the Temple, if the interpretation of scriptures was the prerogative and discipline maintained by the Temple, then outsiders had no validity.
Jesus is no slouch at grappling with the scriptures and their complexity. This is something you and I take for granted, but it is a marvel for the day and age. Some major synagogues might have a limited collection of biblical scrolls, but it is highly unlikely that the folks in Nazareth had much more than those passages that they had memorized.
It is hard to imagine, trying to rely on human memory for the elaborate texts of the scriptures. Today, when you might have several translations of the entire Bible on your smart phone, there was little opportunity to fact check each other’s memory about how the text actually read. So when the itinerant preacher from remote Nazareth debates the scholars of the Temple, it should be a ridiculous mismatch.
So once again, the Pharisees - lovers of the Law - turn their attention to Jesus, they are bit more wary this time, since Jesus has proved to be remarkably familiar with the text and its interpretation. But the answer Jesus offers is not characterized by the divisions of Pharisee, Sadducee, or Herodians. In fact, Jesus was consistently referring to the point of view of the God of Heaven.
You and I try to see God through the eyes of Jesus. But honestly, we are very influenced by the thinking of our day. I recently read an article about the trusted Revised Standard Version (RSV) that was the jewel of the 1950s and the favored version in mainline Protestant churches during the hey-day of post World War II, when the churches were full.
The scholar showed example after example of critical texts re-interpreted due to the influence of Karl Barth. Barth was a giant of theological thought. He was the one that brought the entire idea of substitutionary atonement - Jesus died for our sins to appease the offended God - into mainstream thinking. I admit, I was surprised to learn that that has not always been the “go to” understanding of the crucifixion in the wider Christian community. I never knew there was a choice of beliefs.
Whenever I discover the human origins of different ways of reading the texts, the more I am encouraged to sit with the scriptures and listen to God. I feel released from the pressure to reason my way to agreeing with the narrow way of seeing the words, and a narrow way to read even the creedal statements of our past.
So I celebrate the freedom afforded to us in the United Church of Christ. This is a freedom to wrestle with God. It is a freedom to look for the deeper truth about God that cannot be limited by versions and translations. This freedom does not proclaim that if we knew what the writer of the biblical book actually meant we would know the truth. God is the truth, the text at its best - can only point us to God. Hat in hand, we go to God, unprotected by translation, language, or the power of the sophisticated theologians. We stand in awe and humility before the truth and power of the almighty.
The great debater of the Pharisee’s asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment. We do not know what the Pharisee believes. It is hard for me to honestly suggest what he may have been trying to get at. But the answer he got from Jesus is an invitation into a relationship with God. Love God, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.
It is all about the relationship.
These are not commands demanding discipline or obedience. These are not commands demanding mastery of ancient languages and arts. These are not expectations of extraordinary moral or intellectual discipline. We are not required to be the smartest, the strongest, the most clever or the best looking. We are not told to be more than the one next door, by any measure.
Nothing in these commandments expects us to compare ourselves against anyone. There is no hint at being “more correct” than the next guy. The very heart of our faith is relationship.
If you and I would imitate Jesus, we would disarm the debate of being more holy, or more fully in compliance with the “Law of God” by defaulting to relationship. We would accept the opportunity, whenever it is offered, to show the love and concern of God for those near us.
No doubt, the Pharisaic lawyer, could debate all 617 laws in the books of Moses. Jesus says, “all the law and the prophets hang on these” the Law and the Prophets are the most authoritative of the scriptures for the Pharisees, and Jesus has the authority to name them, the confidence to support the selection, and the compassion of God to invite us to follow him.
It does not matter who is right. It does not matter who can recite the most verses of scripture. It is not a contest. It is not an honor reserved for the brightest and the best. This is a call to honor relationships as the highest value in the Judeo-Christian value system.
It is so easy to lose that perspective, and fall in love with our favorite theology and way of thinking. It is so easy, to place an idol of human construction on the altar of our mind and heart. Sometimes we can even make an idol out of the Bible, or even our favorite verses. Don’t give in to the temptation. Let Jesus, the model and perfecter of our faith, show us once again how to love God and neighbor. Amen.