Lists can be useful. Without a grocery list, shopping takes twice as long, and I inevitably arrive home to discover that I’ve forgotten crucial items.
To-do lists are fine for small tasks: buy stamps, drop off the dry cleaning, start the dishwasher. But to-do lists don’t really work for long-range goals: increase your muscle mass, be more patient, pursue world peace.
Blogs and Facebook feeds are filled with articles and posts featuring lists.
The 40 must-see movies this fall.
Seven foods you should never eat.
20 gadgets you’ve been using the wrong way.
These lists offer harmless diversions. They can be informative or funny or lame. A quick skim of the points or the photo gallery gives you a brief break from more important matters.
There are some kinds of lists that I find at once tempting and toxic. These lists resemble instructions for being a better person or parent or spouse. If you just follow these steps, the list maker claims, you will get the spiritual, moral, relational result you desire.
Seven steps to being a happier person (or twelve, or ten, or five, or fourteen).
Ten, twenty-five, or eight steps to be a better person. (There’s also a list of 75, but who has the patience?)
And parenting? Ten steps, eights steps, nine steps, twelve steps.
These lists suggest that you can be the moral, spiritual person you yearn to be by learning a series of DO’s and DON’Ts and sticking to them. For most of us, common sense says that spiritual and moral growth involves more than this.
Life is complex, textured, nuanced. No list of instructions could possibly cover the variety of situations we encounter. And yet, this doesn’t stop some religious leaders for advocating for precisely such a list. That’s how some people look at the Bible.
An old bumper sticker used to convey that point of view. These words appeared alongside a graphic of the Bible: When all else fails read the instructions.
Some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day took a similar approach to the Scriptures. And it’s why one of them asked Jesus, “What’s the most important law?”
There are 613 commandments in the Torah: 248 DO’s and 365 DON’Ts. That’s one long list of rules!
Some insisted that each commandment bore equal weight. Breaking any law was just as serious as breaking any other. Obeying God’s will means to follow every law to the letter.
Another school of thought recognized that following such an extensive list would inevitably involve failure. Let’s face it, it’s hard enough for some of us to list all of the Ten Commandments. Keeping all 613 laws straight would stretch anybody’s mental abilities. So, this school argued that some laws carried greater significance than others.
For instance, we all remember that murder is prohibited. How many of us know the bird nest law? Here’s how it reads:
“If you come on a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long.” (Deuteronomy 22:6-7)
This school argued that violating some laws had more serious moral and spiritual consequences than breaking other laws. Some laws were more central or occupied a higher position in what is a hierarchy of laws. If you keep the higher law, you’re covered for the lower laws. If a conflict arises between commandments, go with the higher law.
As I mentioned, a Pharisee approached Jesus and asked, “What’s the greatest law?” Matthew alerts us to the Pharisee’s motives. He wasn’t honestly seeking instruction. Instead, the Pharisee was testing Jesus. Maybe he belonged to the letter of the law crowd and wanted to expose Jesus as soft on sin. Alternatively, he may have accepted the idea of a hierarchy of laws and just wanted to involve Jesus in an unflattering public display of theological quibbling.
In any event, Jesus takes another approach entirely. He offers a Summary of the Law and the Prophets. Before going further, keep in mind that the phrase “The Law and the Prophets” refers to the Scriptures, not just to the moral law. Jesus answers by explaining how to listen to the Holy Scriptures.
Jesus was not the only rabbi of his day to favor such an approach. Rabbi Hillel offered a summary that bears a significant resemblance to the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus himself says, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12)
In response to the Pharisee, Jesus offers another Summary: love God with your whole being and love your neighbors as if your own well-being cannot be disconnected from theirs. Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, but he’s not issuing a new law or the highest law under which all others are subsumed. He’s getting at the heart of the Bible, the motivating core of Holy Writ.
Doing God’s will cannot be reduced to abiding by a list of rules. The rules express a deeper truth, a principle that takes various shapes in different situations. The rules are there so that we can get the hang of God’s ways while we’re learning that deeper truth.
Let’s face it, sometimes we follow rules grudgingly. We adhere to the letter of the law without engaging its spirit. Jesus clearly patterns the ways of patience and forgiveness. There have been times in my life when showing patience and granting forgiveness was a serious stretch. I didn’t feel patient or forgiving. But straining to be more than I was at the time led me farther along the path toward becoming a patient and forgiving person. It’s a path I’m still traveling.
Alternatively, applying the law robotically can violate the deeper truth that the laws are designed only to illustrate. Jesus himself refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery while the law called for her death by stoning.
Jesus gives us a summary of God’s word to us. This summary comes not in the form of an abstract theological concept, but as truth in the flesh. In a person. In Jesus. Jesus summarizes the Law and the Prophets in his life, death, and resurrection. He fleshes it out.
Don’t look simply for a list of DO’s and DON’Ts in the Bible. Instead, look for the truth whose presence shimmers and pulses in every story, every commandment, every parable, every Psalm. Listen for the rhythm of God’s own heart in the flesh. And try to walk in step with that rhythm. Walk in love as Christ loves us.
This sermon was preached at Trinity Episcopal Church in Natchitoches, Louisiana.