Commandment calculus

By Rev. Jeff Lackie On Oct 03 2020

Imagine a world that insisted on perfection: a world full of rules, where failure to follow them brings grave consequences. Imagine living every moment fearful that\ your next step  your next act – your next word or thought would bring doom to you, your family, or your community.

What would you do to avoid such a fate? Would you dance? Sing? Pray? Sacrifice? Fight?


We humans have, from earliest recorded time, tried to make sense of the world around us by explaining away the chaos. Rituals become good luck charms offered to ensure the cycle of the seasons is not interrupted. Rituals take on greater meaning when a traumatic event disrupts the hunt or the harvest. Pre-scientific societies invented explanations for natural events, and then developed religious reactions to do what they could to bring balance to things. Some of these were ways to honour the majesty of creation and celebrate the complex beauty and bounty of nature. Many of them are beautiful tributes to the mystery of creation. And some were glorified superstitions that sprung from nagging doubts and towering fears. And when doubt and fear rule the day it is easy to conclude that it is the rules and rituals themselves are what keep you safe from the wrath of a chaotic world.


Many ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean religions developed habits and patterns of worship that were meant to do just that – satisfy the gods who caused the chaos. 


What first made the religious habits of the Hebrew people different was their acknowledgement of ONE GOD. What’s more, this was a God, not of chaos – who needed to be appeased in order to maintain good relations - but One who imposed ORDER on CHAOS with just a word.


So when the Hebrews get themselves organized (ie – when God leads them to freedom from their Egyptian bondage) and they look to God for rules to live by, they are ‘rewarded’ with Ten Commandments. Not a system of ritual sacrifice; that developed later, as they worked out the so-called practical application of these 10 rules. No, they record these commandments – given by God; written in stone - each a subtle reminder that God intends God’s people to live lives of order, not chaos.


These commands are the epitome of peace: love and worship God alone; honour yourselves by honouring God during a day of rest; respect (the Hebrew Chabad – Glorify/honour/respect) your parents – don’t kill, cheat, lie or covet (ie. keep peace in the community) simple rules that people ever since have sought to complicate (or use to justify themselves)  Simple, right?


Yet out of these Ten Commandments grow the maze of Levitical Law (and even some of our modern civil law.) and even in Jesus’ day, the debate on exceptions, exemptions and special circumstances was part of the religious and social discourse. Until, in the midst of one of those conversations Jesus offers to ‘make it simple’ again.


What is the greatest commandment? (a question which is designed as a trap – sure to provoke strenuous arguments about righteousness and so forth) Jesus can be caught by his answer for the questioners want to catch him – they need to be in control of the chaos their system has created. But Jesus knows that the law of God is about order and peace, and his answer reflects the harmony of these ten ‘rules to live by.’


The commandments do not function in isolation from one another – they are part of a whole; consistent with the nature of the One who inspired them in the first place. This collection of rules together generates devotion and makes good relations.  Love God – Love your neighbour as yourself  – these are the summary of all the law and the prophets – This is what you need to know.


Jesus would lead us to the heart of the matter. In his explanation, love is the measure of all things. Love is what matters. The relationships among, around and within us are the most important.


Lately, it has been challenging to maintain those relationships. Our worship has been radically different - our social interactions have been greatly reduced - and all for good reason. And as we find new ways to do familiar things, we find ourselves frustrated - angry - grieving what once was. 


In this environment it would be so much easier to throw all caution to the wind and just ‘act normally’...but the law of love - the two great commandments - require us to be compassionate and open to change. We don’t love God less by worshipping the way we do; masks and soloists and sitting at a distance from one another still brings us together in the Spirit. Following the common-sense rules of public health does not negate the power of our gathering together around the word - or our gathering together at the table.  


We do these things in the spirit of the law of love - for the sake of the health of our neighbour - we love them because we love God (and vice-versa). We refrain from singing together - we wear masks, we follow the visiting restrictions in nursing homes and hospitals because we choose to live by the law of love. And as we are drawn to the table by that same love, we are reminded - BY THE VERY STRANGE NATURE OF THIS MORNINGS SACRAMENT - that the visible signs of God’s invisible grace are not restricted to our usual notions of holy ritual or holy space. Gymnasiums, kitchens, living rooms, patios - all these are places where the love of God is at work; each of these is a place were the love of Christ resides. 


Around our various tables, law is made simple again. For all our attempts to justify and qualify, here God expresses God’s love for us, and in our stumbling, distanced, and eager way we share that love with and for one another. 


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