Monday, April 10, 2017

Following Jesus: Obeying His Commandments

My son has been into Dungeons and Dragons for at least 20 years. When he was a teen people used to view that fact with alarm. They asked me if I didn't think it was “of the Devil.” I would respond that the only thing diabolical about the game was the fact that it was so complicated that the kid had to buy a library's worth of books to play it! Seriously, you have books that give you a breakdown in constructing the characters you play, including their races, professions, strengths and weaknesses, intelligence levels, dexterity, stamina, charisma, wisdom, etc. Then there are books on the various weapons, spells, and useful items you may find. There are books on the monsters you will fight and books on the various worlds and game settings. Each world has its own set of books on characters, items, monsters, etc. My old Encyclopedia Britannica takes up less shelf space.

I'm actually glad he got into D & D because it kept him occupied, educated him in various time periods and cultures (some games are set in the real world), and took so much of his allowance that he had nothing to buy drugs with! Actually D & D was his drug of choice and he and his wife still meet with friends to play. It's rather like the bridge clubs of my parents' generation.

That said, D & D holds almost no attraction for me (nor do most games). I don't mind him calling me and asking for help in constructing a storyline for him and his friends to play. But the game itself has too many rules. One whole session is usually spent just making your characters. And once you start playing—well, a D & D joke goes that in a game your group can travel a hundred miles in 5 minutes and then spend two hours fighting a 5 minute battle. It's as if someone played The Lord of the Rings movies in slow motion and then added statistical analysis to every move each character made. And don't get me started on how many different kinds of dice you need! For me all the rules spoil the fun. 

A lot of people have the same criticism of religion: too many rules! And, yes, if you start with the first 5 books of the Bible, the Torah, you will find 613 commandments in about 200 pages. Small wonder that even the scribes and Pharisees, who literally made their living explicating and expanding on all these laws, debated which one was the most important. Hillel the Elder was supposedly confronted by a Gentile who said he would stand on one foot while the great rabbi explained Jewish law to him. Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation. Go and learn.”

Jesus, when asked which commandment is the greatest, said something a little different. For one thing he actually cites the Torah. Hillel's negative version of the Golden Rule is not found in the Bible. (And when Jesus states the Golden Rule he makes it positive: treat others as you would like to be treated. In a sense his version puts a greater demand on us because he eliminates the possibility of neglect. Following Hillel's version would mean upon finding someone suffering from misfortune, you simply couldn't make it worse. But it doesn't explicitly stop you from leaving the person alone. Jesus' version of the Golden Rule requires you to help the person out and do what you can to alleviate their suffering. You can only do that with Hillel's version if you see “not being helped” as something hateful to you. I'm sure Hillel would approve of that interpretation but Jesus takes that kind of hair-splitting off the table by requiring you to do in every situation what you would like others to do to you.)

But in regards to the question of the greatest commandment, first Jesus cites Deuteronomy 6:5, which says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And then, unprompted, he quotes Leviticus 19:18, which says,” your neighbor as yourself.” Hillel only deals with the social ethics of the Torah. Jesus puts our relationship with God at the top, and then adds our relationships with others. The one flows from the other because humanity is created in God's image. So one could see the second commandment as a logical extention of the first. In Matthew 22:40, Jesus says, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments,” which is similar to Hillel's comment.

And in Mark 12:31, Jesus says, “There is no commandment greater than these.” In effect he subordinates all the other commandments to these two. By setting these commands—to love God with all we are and have and to love our neighbors as we do ourselves—above all others he creates an ethical hierarchy. All other commandments must be specific expressions of the first two. And if they aren't, they are superceded by the two greatest commandments. Let's see how this works with the other moral demands in the Bible.

The Ten Commandments are easily assigned to one or the other of the greatest commandments. Having no other gods before him, not trying to reduce God to a symbol or image, not abusing his name and devoting a day to him each week are expressions of our love for God. Respecting your parents, not murdering others, being faithful to your spouse, not stealing from others, not lying about others, and not obsessing over and wanting what belongs to others are all ways of showing your love for your neighbor. And indeed you can easily work out how most of the other commandments  in the Bible fit into this scheme. And when we encounter ones that don't seem to be loving, they are overruled by the commandments to love. Jesus demonstrates this when he heals people on the Sabbath or touches lepers, menstruating women, and dead bodies, all of which would make him ritually unclean. Following the commandments to love negates implementation of lesser laws when the results would be unloving.

But before we see how this applies in everyday life, let us examine what precisely we mean by love. To most people is means a positive emotion in regards to someone or something. To others it means a desire to possess the object of affection. Neither of those works in regards to what the Bible means when it talks of our love towards God or our neighbors or especially towards our enemies. Remember that peace means total well-being. Love is doing what you can to ensure the total well-being of the other. It may be accompanied by affectionate feelings and certainly such feelings make it easier to perform acts of love. But, as anyone who is married or has kids knows, there are times when you have a hard time feeling that way towards those you nevertheless love. Then the thing to do is to work for that person's well-being despite being angry with or disappointed in or appalled at them.

One of the greatest displays of love I have seen was by a woman whose husband, my patient, required a lot of care. She emptied his urine bag, mopped up the saliva that flowed constantly from his tracheostomy, and took him to Miami for doctor's appointments weekly. The one thing she didn't do was his dressing change, which encompassed 2/3s of his back. His oozing open wound was the one thing that nauseated her. Changing that was my job. When it became evident that soon his insurance would no longer pay for my visits, she reluctantly watched how I did it. She fought back the revulsion because she knew she would soon have to do that for him as well. That's love.

That is how God loves us. He loves us despite our brokeness, despite our messiness, despite our wounds, self-inflicted or not. Paul said, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) And Jesus confirms this when he upgrades the second commandment on the night before he goes to the cross. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34) It is no longer enough to love others as we love ourselves. We need to go beyond that. We need to love one another to the same extent as the man who died for us does. If there is one word to describe Jesus' love, it is self-sacrificial.

That is how we should love him and love others. But how does that translate into everyday life?

The 13th chapter of Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth is a popular passage to read at weddings. But in context, Paul is not talking to couples so much as the whole church. The Corinthian church was fighting over a lot of things including spiritual gifts. Paul points out that just as a body has many diverse parts, so does the body of Christ, the church. Then he prefaces his chapter on love by saying, “...I will show you a still more excellent way.” And he enumerates the qualities of love.

Love is patient.” In older translations the word was translated “long suffering” and the Greek has the sense of not merely waiting but enduring. Rather than insisting on its own timetable, love lets people take the time they need to recover or change. In an impatient world, love's patience is sorely needed.

Love is kind.” The Greek means “to show oneself to be useful; to act benevolently.” Kindness is becoming rare these days. In an increasingly cruel world, love's kindness is necessary.

Love does not envy.” Like most of the “seven deadly sins,” envy has been put in service to our economy. Envy of the rich and famous is used to fuel consumption of stuff we don't actually need. Of course, for many people such things are way beyond their ability to buy which turns envy into resentment. In an ever-more materialistic world, love's lack of envy refreshes the spirit.

Love is not boastful.” The era of the humble-brag is over. People in public life are just out and out bragging about themselves, what they've accomplished and how they rank against others. This sets a bad example for others. A healthy ego doesn't need to obsess over itself; only an insecure ego needs constant praise. Love is outwardly focussed. In a narcissistic world, love's lack of incessant self-promotion is vital.

Love is not conceited.” When fictional protagonists like Dr. Gregory House were allowed to be arrogant, it was a refreshing change from vanilla-flavored heroes. But now it is acceptable for brilliant people (or people who just think they are brilliant) to be arrogant. And it is bleeding over into real life. I'm not telling anyone to hide their light under a bushel but nobody excels at everything. No one is totally self-sufficient. Recognition of that fact is humility. In a society that tolerates arrogance, love's humility is an important corrective.

Love is not rude.” Politeness is not a quality people prize anymore. They like to tell it like it is, no matter who it hurts. Love realizes that the truth rarely needs to be told in the most offensive way possible. In fact, that kind of talk rarely opens up useful conversations; rather it shuts them down. In a world that goes out of its way to step on people's toes, love's politeness is important.

Love is not self-seeking.” Some translations render this “Love does not insist on its own way" or "its own rights.” Let's face it: we all think we are right. But when we refuse to even consider someone else's way or someone else's rights, we lose other perspectives and we cease to learn about a world that is too variegated for any one person to comprehend. Love takes other people into consideration. In a self-righteous world, love's tendency to think about others is essential to cooperation within society.

Love is not irritable.” Doesn't it seem like a lot of people have a hair-trigger temper nowadays? Some folks are in perpetual outrage mode. They go on and on about petty grievances and are unable to shrug off the slightest insult. Love isn't touchy or resentful. In a prickly world, love's ability to absorb minor irritations makes life less fractious.

Love does not keep a record of wrongs.” In context it probably means wrongs against itself, but it could just as easily be keeping a count of other people's mistakes or missteps. You know a relationship is in trouble when someone is keeping score. In an unforgiving world, love's decision not to keep count of every wrong is a mercy.

Love finds no joy in injustice but rejoices in the truth.” People are gleeful when they find out others are doing wrong. That's one of the attractions of reality shows as far as I can tell. Certainly our politics has been poisoned by each party gloating over the misdeeds of the other side. Love finds nothing to celebrate in anyone's wrongdoing. Love delights in the truth. In a world with a perverse sense of justice, love's refusal to revel in wrongs and the gladness it finds in the triumph of the truth is crucial.

Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything.” I'm using J.B. Phillip's translation of this verse because I think he expresses it best. When doing the right thing gets hard, a lot of folks just quit. Love never gives up. In a world that abandons noble endeavors when they get difficult, love's neverending trust and hope are an indispensable part of bringing God's healing to those who are perishing.

Since Jesus is the incarnation of the God who is love, and since we are the body of Christ, the ongoing embodiment of that divine love, we should be able to replace the word “love” in this passage with “a Christian.” A Christian is patient. A Christian is kind. A Christian does not envy. A Christian is not boastful. A Christian is not conceited. A Christian is not rude. A Christian is not self-seeking. A Christian is not irritable. A Christian does not keep a record of wrongs. A Christian finds no joy in injustice but rejoices in the truth. A Christian knows no limits to their endurance, no end to their trust, no fading of their hope. A Christian can outlast anything.

Want to try a good spiritual exercise? Substitute your own name for the word “love” in this passage. When you get to an attribute that you wouldn't be able to say with a straight face in front of a bunch of people, like “Chris is patient,” you know what to ask for help with when you pray to God.

During Lent we have examined 7 key elements to following Jesus: prayer, studying the Bible, community, worship, being a good steward, telling the Good News and obeying his commandments to love. There may be other elements but these are essential. As students and followers of Jesus, we need to implement all of them for the spiritual health of our relationships with ourselves, with others and with our Lord and Savior who invites us to take up our cross and accompany him on his path to the kingdom of the God who is love.

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