Our first text this morning, Deuteronomy 30:11-14, comes near the end of Moses’ long sermon that makes up the book of Deuteronomy. He’s speaking to the Israelites, who are, finally, about to enter the promised land; this is his last chance as their leader, since he’s about to hand things over to Joshua. Moses has been reviewing, at length, the history of their travels and the contents of the commandment that was handed down at Sinai, along with what may be some additional material that has been incorporated into the “rules of the community” over that time.
He will wind up his long discourse with one of the most memorable lines in scripture, a few verses down, the exhortation to “choose life!”
Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Holy one your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of days …Deuteronomy 30:19-20
Then we turn to the second reading, which shows us how that commandment Moses was talking about has come down to the remote descendants of those Israelites. We’re catching a conversation between Jesus and a lawyer, one that introduces a famous story or parable that Jesus tells on his final trip to Jerusalem.
An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”Luke 10:25-28
Then we probably know that the lawyer’s next question is “but, who is my neighbor?”
Which might remind us that we – human beings, that is – have trouble with this “law.” Why is that? What exactly is our problem with “the law”? Our real problem, our human problem?
Before anyone answers that, I ought to warn everyone, I am about to suggest that what we may think is the “right answer” to that question is NOT the right answer, and cannot possibly BE the right answer. So, I don’t want anyone to feel as embarrassed as the panelists on that television show QI, who, when they give a predictable, but mistaken, answer to a question, get a big flashing light and a loud horn and lose lots of points off their score, by saying “legalism.”
Because a lot of us here, who have grown up Christian and who have heard lots of sermons over the years, and have sat through lots of Sunday school classes, and have read lots of books, are going to automatically give this really, really popular, but not correct, answer we’ve absorbed from other very sincere Christians over all that time. It’s been popular, even though it’s very easy to check, and very easy to recognize as mistaken when we start to look at it, because it’s also very easy to accept. It fits the way we like to think, about Jesus and about Christianity, and it makes us feel pretty good about how well we’re doing as Christians, and for all those reasons, we don’t think to question it too much.
So, I thought I’d get the popular but mistaken idea out of the way first, and then take a closer look at what seems to be our core problem with this “law” – more accurately, this torah, literally this “instruction” or “teaching,” that Moses and Jesus and this lawyer are all talking about in these short texts this morning. This teaching that Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, actually embodied and lived, according to what we read in our Bibles.
I am assuming we do all in fact admit that we have some problem with this law. I’m taking for granted that we’ve all heard “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and that we all take our prayers of confession on Sunday mornings seriously … if we don’t agree on that, that’s another whole conversation.
But, the popular but mistaken idea I’d love for us to get out of the way at the very beginning this morning is that the main problem people have with “the law” is its “legalism.” Which usually means, when we use that word, that the law was too complicated; it had too many rules – or the rules were too picky or even, it was nothing but rules – and it’s having all those rules that makes it so hard – so impossible for people to do.
We often tell ourselves that the problem with religion in Jesus’s time was that God’s people had lost sight of the forest for the trees; they had gotten too picky and perfectionistic, and if they had just understood the one, simple, basic principle of the torah, everything would have been OK.
Jesus wouldn’t have had to have all those arguments with the Pharisees. Paul wouldn’t have had to write the letter to the Galatians. “The law” wouldn’t have been that … impossible … for people.
This is a truly popular idea. And it is truly wrong.
We can see how wrong it is, from the texts we read this morning, in fact.
Because if we step back from what we have in our heads, which can interfere with reading the Bible sometimes, we can see that nothing like “legalism” is what these people in the Bible are saying about the law – not Moses, not Jesus, not the lawyer, not anyone.
Instead, here’s Moses, after running through what IS, no question, a long review of the commandments and ordinances and judgments and testimonies of the torah, saying, “this isn’t too hard” – literally, “this isn’t too marvelous for you.” That is, this isn’t too hard for you to comprehend. We might say, “this isn’t rocket science” or “this isn’t brain surgery.” It’s immediately practical stuff, you already understand it, you already “get” what you’re being asked to do, and it already resonates with people who’ve been made in the image of God.
This law is “near you,” Moses says, it’s “in your mouth and in your heart,” Which, when he says that, is reminding his listeners of something he said way back at the beginning of this long sermon, that the first thing to hear is love the Holy one your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. That’s Deuteronomy 6:4, and this foundational commandment to love God with everything is already something they feel and can say … it’s just a question of follow-through, of bringing their strength to it, of sticking to it.
So, naturally, when Jesus asks this lawyer “what do you read in the law,” the lawyer tells him the exact same thing, You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself. Because everyone had known that since Moses; so Jesus knew the lawyer would say that, because everyone would say that, if you asked them. If you asked anyone, what’s the essence of the law, or “what’s the most important commandment,” they would say exactly what this lawyer says here, or exactly what Jesus says when someone asks him that question in Matthew’s gospel. Everyone knows that the essence of the law is this one, simple, basic principle of love.
But if everyone knows that, then their problem with “the law” can’t really be that it has all those rules. That can’t really be what makes it so hard, can it?
In fact, if we think about it, that would be a little bit like us thinking the problem with the Indiana rules of the road is that there are too many of them. There are a lot of them, in fact; Title 9 of the Indiana State Code, “motor vehicles,” articles 13-33, is very detailed; we can condense it down to an 84 page driver’s manual for the purposes of teaching people how to pass their driver’s test in the state of Indiana, and that 84 page manual explains most of what someone might need to know about the rules of the road and the meaning of road signs and what to do at intersections of various kinds, etc., but we expect drivers in the state of Indiana to obey every single one of those rules, however many there are. Because, at the same time, we’d probably all agree that there’s a basic principle behind all of those rules, and that is, “drive safely.” Not too fast, not too slow, keep your eyes open, pay attention to the road and what’s going on around you … “drive safely.”
Everyone knows that. Most of the time, if people have a problem with the rules of the road, it’s not because there are too many of them, or they are too hard to understand.
Same thing with “the law,” God’s law, the torah, everyone always knew that the basic law was love God, and love your neighbor.
When people had a problem with “the law,” in the Bible, it wasn’t because there were too many rules, or they were too complicated or too picky. The prophets weren’t complaining that people were getting the fine points wrong. They were warning people about worshipping idols, and robbing the poor. The big stuff.
Which brings us to the real problem – which is that it’s precisely that single, simple, basic principle that is so hard for us. It’s not too easy to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our might; it’s not too easy to love our neighbors, at all, let alone to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Sometimes, we don’t want to do it. And even when we want to do it, we find out over and over again that we don’t always do it very well. Our biggest problem with “the law” is not “legalism,” is not that it’s too long or too complicated or too hard to understand. Our big problem is with the love that’s the simple, basic heart and soul of the law. That love is hard for us.
Because, for one thing, there’s no limit on that demand to love God and our neighbor. It’s all the time, 24-7, 365 days a year, it’s like having an infant or a toddler … and we can sometimes manage to love like that, for a short while, when we have an infant or a toddler, but we’re relieved when that’s behind us, because more often what we want, what we crave, is “me time.” Time to do what we want, when we want to do it; time to be our own bosses; time to have things our way.
So, having a few more rules, that would set a few reasonable limits, would make loving God and our neighbor much, much easier. A rule or two that would tell us when enough is enough. Like, maybe, say your prayers three times a day; or five times a day, or nine times a day. Whatever, as long as, once we’ve done it, we’ve done it.
People have made plenty of lists like that – avoid all the mortal sins; give something up for Lent; teach Sunday school, serve on a committee …
Following 50 or 100 or 1,000 rules can be easy for us, honestly. What’s hard for us is putting our whole hearts and souls and minds and strength at others’ disposal, actually being present to God and to our neighbor as loving human beings – here, now, wherever that is, whenever that is … like, for instance, on the side of a road between Jerusalem and Jericho, when we’ve got something to do, and somewhere to be, and someone is hurt, and needs help, and there we are. Like in that famous story Jesus tells the lawyer, the one about the Good Samaritan.
There’s no limit on this love, and in practice it can get complicated, when we’ve got more than one neighbor, and those different neighbors have different ideas and needs and wants, so conflicts arise and need to be resolved, and working our way to the bottom of things and coming to agreements based on love takes time and commitment … it would be way easier to slap a rule or two on our life together, like “Dad’s always right,” or “do it Mom’s way” or “ask the pastor” …
There’s no limit, it gets complicated, and we’re not in control. Living that kind of unlimited, committed love would mean not only less control of our time and our activities, less control over our priorities, it would mean less control over ourselves, over who and what we are … because as we probably know from the experiences we have had, that kind of love changes us.
We find ourselves doing things we wouldn’t have imagined ourselves doing; going places we’d never have imagined ourselves going; thinking things we never thought before; becoming people we hadn’t planned to become.
My daughter is engaged to be married, and the young man she’s engaged to be married to is someone who likes to fish. They met right at the beginning of the COVID emergency, when it wasn’t possible to “go out” in the ordinary sense of that word, and he liked to fish, and something to be aware of about my daughter, she had never fished before in her life. She had never been camping or gone on hikes, or spent any time by bodies of water that weren’t swimming pools. So about 6 months into this, she was coming home talking about the fsh she had caught, and the lures she had used, and her new fishing pole, and at that point, we realized, this was a serious relationship … because, she was learning to fish. This was a transformation … that’s something we see, in ourselves and in other people, that grows out of love. We know that.
So we know, if we do love God, with all we’ve got, that will change us. If we ever do love our neighbors, the way we love our children or ourselves, that will transform us, beyond recognition.
So most of us want more rules, not fewer rules; most of us want to set some reasonable limits on this love, up front, because we have a sense of how unreasonable it could get.
That’s our real, deep problem with this torah, this instruction, this law. We don’t want to do it. And even when we want to do it, it asks everything of us. So we hold back. And so, we invariably fall short.
It’s a good thing for us that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has already done for us what the law – this beautiful law of love – could not do, which was to overcome the broken, fallen reluctance in us to love God and to love the people around us who are made in the image of God. That broken, fallen reluctance plagues us and our relationships with others here in this world. But Jesus Christ joined us here, to live that law of love of God and love of neighbor in solidarity with us, in a full human life … and in doing that, taught us and showed us what that looks like.
We were right, there really aren’t any safe limits on it, and in the context of this very broken and fallen world, a life without limits on loving took Jesus directly to the cross … but also, as we know, past the cross and past the grave to new life.
We call that new life the beginning of the New Creation, the New Heavens and the New Earth. And we are part of that new creation, as we find ourselves “in” Christ, embracing the torah, the teaching, the new life, that is offered to us in Christ. As the Apostle Paul said, enthusiastically, now no longer I live, but Christ lives, in me … a new life, that doesn’t hold back, that overcomes our reluctance, and draws us irresistibly towards the goodness of that way of life, towards its truth, into the practice of its extravagant love.
The problem with the law has never been that it had too many rules. The problem was that the one basic rule, the rule of love, was never too easy for us.
But Jesus has made it look, if not easy, then possible. For us, who are dedicated to being Jesus’s followers, looking to Jesus gives us an image of God, and of neighbor, who really inspires love, because he loved us first, and best, and showed us how to do it in human life, for real. And trusting Christ’s love and forgiveness gives us the courage, to keep trying to live that way ourselves.
Loving God and other people has never been too easy for people. But by the grace of Jesus Christ, we have a path to follow as we live into God’s invitation to new life, through Christ’s teaching – Christ’s torah – of love of God and love of neighbor.