On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied, ‘How do you read it?’
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 neighbour as yourself.”’
‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’
Today’s study is about the preferences that we have as people.
There are two particular ways that this works. The first is in the question that Jesus asked – and it shows that, even two millennia ago, people were similar to people of today with regard to the scriptures. Jesus asked, “How do you read it?” Or, “How do you see it?” – In other words, what’s your personal opinion about a certain important issue, based on your own personal understanding of scripture?
The second is about how we tend to choose to take more notice of certain scriptures than others. How we place more emphasis on some words, some laws, some doctrines, while almost completely ignoring others.
A word of caution here: these are very human and normal tendencies. It is very rare indeed to find a person who has not done one or both of these things. It is safer to say before God, “Yes, I do that! Forgive me. Help me not to do that.”
Back in the days when less than five percent of the population of nearly every country were literate, you would be dependent on your understanding of Christianity, the creed, the bible, and the doctrines of salvation from the teaching of the church. You may have learned things by rote in Sunday school. There would be the teaching and the liturgy to help you in the normal church services. The things that were often repeated so that they became remembered and a part of you – that was the purpose of liturgy.
It all seems very different these days when a very small percent do not read as adults, and there is no need to have things internalised and memorised, because you can have your script of liturgy in the little booklet that is kept in the pews or at the back of the church. And so the repetitive nature of these things feels more repetitive, and more ‘religious’ rather than ‘living.’
As literacy grew, so the number of denominations without liturgy and recitation of the creed grew. Why repeat these things every week when you can read it any time, and maybe attend an adult class if you missed out on Sunday school as a child?
The growth in the ability to read also lead to more people buying and reading a bible for themselves. And at that point we began to see a virtual explosion in the number of denominations in the Protestant world.
The fact that this happened at all is very indicative of the first of the things I listed above. We can read the bible in our own way and form our own thoughts about the words there. We can ignore the traditions and teachings of our own church, and others of history, and form our own teachings for ourselves. Just examine carefully the history of some churches, and you will find that a church or even a denomination was often founded just by one man.
To me, it would seem to be safer to have a number of teachers come together, who had both an understanding of church history and traditional teachings and creed and liturgy, and who would agree together that something was wrong. To pray together about this and decide together how to move forward. Maybe first to bring the concerns to the leadership where they are, and to pray together with them. And only if things become drastically intransigent to begin something new outside the church.
A study of the history of Protestantism is useful – because the original Protestants were Catholics, and they did NOT want to leave the Catholic church! But these days there is often the misquote of a text from Revelations (‘come out of her’), taken (as often such things are) out of context and used as an excuse to form yet another separated body of believers. And sometimes the leaders of this new body will begin to declare that only those who are with them and fully in agreement with all the new doctrine will be saved and go to heaven.
Brothers and sisters, the doctrine of the redeeming work of Christ on the cross of Calvary is the only doctrine to understand and believe in and have faith on and to practise for acceptance before the Father and to begin our walk with Christ. And, like it or hate it, even the Catholic church has that basic doctrine. (And this is not the only denomination to teach it poorly sometimes – I have been in many Protestant churches, even some declaring themselves as evangelical and fundamentalist, that are also poor at teaching this.)
I also think about the prayer of Jesus, as recorded in the gospel. He prayed that we, who believe in Him, will be one. Are you going to tell me that the prayer of Jesus is not answered? I would say rather that those who create division through their own pride, through their vaunted self-belief in their own ‘take’ of the scriptures, are in sin for bringing that very division. This was the heartache and sadness for Luther – because he did not want the body of Christ divided, but rather the leadership taken out of sin.
A word of caution here. I am not saying that God will never reveal to you to move from one church to another. I think you can catch the possibility from what I already said here that some churches are led by human preferences about doctrines, and that these are then rather heavily enforced on the membership. But if God has revealed to you that something is very wrong, then it can be more and more uncomfortable for you, as an individual, to stay within something that you no longer have confidence or faith in. You can try to approach the leadership and voice your concerns, but experience of history, from Luther onward, reveals that this can be both thankless and fruitless. Yet it would still be the right thing to do first.
But I would beg you not to create new divisions in the body. Not to lean only on your own personal understandings. And not to create your own religion.
That is really at the crux of what Jesus was asking. “How do you see it?” could have been answered in a way that showed that the expert in the Law had created, in effect, his own religion. And, indeed, this is the very reason why Jesus was so outspoken against the Pharisees and Scribes, because they seemed to worship law more than they worshipped the Lord. Every jot and tittle of the words of the Law was more important to them than the desire to walk in a right and loving relationship with the Lord. Their religion was without relationship with God, it was rather a relationship with the written word. And Jesus even showed in the Sermon on the Mount how legalism is not good enough and that literalism can bring error (as with the way that divorce was being handled).
The expert of the Law gave answers that require relationship. How can you love with your whole being only words of the Law? But it is possible to love a person. And this love will prevent you from doing things that a person does not like, and will move you to do things to please that person.
Much more can be said about this first problem – but space is short and I need to mention the second.
In this one, we must admit that some of the scriptures feel more important to us than others. We even make some of the Law more important than others. And even though we have the New Covenant that brings the righteousness of Jesus as our garments, we tend to want to see the Law obeyed in those around us. And this results in judgement (which Jesus told us not to do) and hypocrisy (because it is not possible as humans to fulfil the Law).
We are told in scripture that whoever fails in the least of the Law has failed it all and is not accepted. That on its own should be enough to warn us not to treat one aspect of the Law as more important than another. It should also be enough to reveal to us that we need to seek to see Jesus in the lives of those around us, and not obedience to a list of requirements.
But we humans love rules, and to control others. You don’t? Stop kidding yourself!
And so every day, it seems to me, that I read complete hypocrisy by Christians in national newspapers and web sites. Christians speaking about the breaking of the Law by those of the ‘gay’ community. Yet those same Christians are doing this while wearing clothes made with mixed fibres – and this is also a breaking of the Law. And the breaking of the least of the law, according to scripture, is…?
And this ignores the warnings about judging others in Matthew and Luke (especially the Sermon on the Mount sections). It really is the blind leading the blind. It is hypocrisy. And there is the same judgement that will return on those outspoken voices, pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing into their laps according to the promise in Luke.
Listen, you can’t place one Law as more important than another. And you can’t judge any other human on the basis of Law unless you are fulfilling the whole law in your own life. That is scriptural. But it is also important for the spreading of the gospel.
No-one is going to listen to the gospel while they are suffering hatred, bigotry, persecution, and worse from the people who are preaching the gospel. It just ain’t going to happen! And so the blood of those who are refused access to the gospel because of this bad behaviour by some Christians will be required at the hands of those very same Christians. This is how God’s justice works!
You can’t pick and choose about it for your own convenience or pride!
And the two laws that we read of in the text today are a good example of the way that we choose in this way. Certainly all will want to preach, teach and practise the first: to love the Lord with the whole of every part of your being. But the second, to love your neighbour as yourself, this is so almost ignored.
Yes, there are some who try to include this as their practise. But in my experience it will be at most one or two people in each congregation of one hundred or more. I don’t think my experience is particularly unusual either. And then to see religious leaders supporting politics or politicians that make life even harder for the most vulnerable in society… Well, I have to say that this speaks for itself.
If the church was in obedience to the second commandment as much as to the first, then there would be no needy in the congregation, or in the neighbourhood that the church serves. It is that simple.
The Lord sees the needy that have not been helped. Yes, they need help to know how to get out of the situation and stay out of the situation. Sometimes they simply need a job – and often there is someone in the congregation wealthy enough to employ them and get them started. But first make sure that they are not hungry, not thirsty, not naked, not homeless, not without feeling loved…
The least of these who is left as unhelped, whose needs have been ignored, stands as a testimony against the whole congregation.
It really is that serious!