Friday, 21 October 2011

What do you know?

Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18 Matthew 22: 34-40

I have lived my life in fear for the last 10 years or so.. ever since one of my brothers revealed that if he was ever on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ I would be his friend to phone to help him if he had a Bible question. Imagine the pressure of being on national television (heard, if not seen) and having to give the right answer: and imagine the embarrassment when it was revealed that even thought I had got the simple question wrong, I was in fact a minister of religion.

Sometimes I wonder what sort of questions I might be asked, which part of the Bible the question compilers might choose. Perhaps today’s readings have given us a clue – because probably the best known bit of the Bible is the 10 commandments. Well, I say best known – but most of us are a bit hazy about exactly what they are.
Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not covet thy neighbours ox… or was it ass…
Isn’t it strange how the commandments telling us what not to do stick in our minds most firmly.

In 2004 the Methodist Church invited people to text in their choice of an 11th commandment.
The winning entries were:
Thou shalt not worship false pop idols
thou shalt not kill in the name of any god
thou shalt not consume thine own body weight in fudge
and thou shalt not be negative.

Actually, as we heard, the book of Leviticus includes a lot more positive advice about how to live a holy life, or how to live as God wants us to live & how it is best for us to live.

Through Moses, God says that people need to be holy – they need to live lives of love and decency and respect, because that is what we were made for.
Then, in one modern English translation of Leviticus, it says this:
“Be fair, no matter who is on trial – don’t favour either the poor or the rich…Stop being angry and don’t try to take revenge.
I am the Lord, and I command you to love others as much as you love yourself.”

The 10 commandments themselves are not all negative:
Worship God alone.
Do not make idols.
Do not misuse God’s name.
Remember the day of rest, the Sabbath.
Honour your father and mother
And then the 5 which I mentioned earlier – do not kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or be envious of other people.

When the Pharisees ask Jesus ‘which is the greatest commandment’ it’s meant to be a trick question. We all know how difficult it is to agree which is the best or most important of anything – I’ve got fed up of watching these ‘best films of all time’ type TV programmes, I end up staying up til midnight to see what’s number one – only to end up saying ‘oh, rubbish, Sound of Music is much better than the Terminator’ – or whatever it is.
Jesus is meant to be onto a loser – if he says ‘You must not kill’ is the top commandment, people will say ‘Ooh, he doesn’t think worshipping God is important, then’ or if he says the most important commandment is ‘Respect your parents’ he can be criticised for not being tough enough on crime!

So what Jesus says is very clever – he sums up all the 10 commandments in 2 phrases ‘Love God with a your heart & soul & mind’ and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’. Love God, love other people – that’s it.

So Jesus gets out of the trick question very neatly.
But he does something else – Jesus is really clever because he makes us think about what the commandments are really for. They aren’t a set of rules to be followed like mindless robots – and God isn’t watching & waiting for us to slip up so that he can punish us horribly for breaking the rules. The commandments are there to help us work out what life is really about – what we are here for. And they tell us that we’re here to love God & love other people.

It might sound a bit mushy – and it might not surprise you to find out this originated in the United States – but one way of referring to the Bible is as ‘God’s love letter to us’. I said it sounds a bit mushy – but it’s true: the stories and poems and letters in the Bible are all recorded to try to help us know about the God who loves us and wants to talk to us and guide us.

I started by wondering whether the 10 commandments were the best known part of the Bible. And I think that knowing is really at the heart of following Jesus. But not knowing what all the rules and commandments are, or even knowing which could be considered most important – Jesus points us to a knowledge that is not about facts, but is about relationship.
The most important thing is to know God, and love God in return; to know God’s love in Jesus Christ, and to celebrate it; to know that our love for other people is a vital part of being alive, and to want to serve them.
And know this: Jesus meets us at this table, to feed us, fill us and guide us in knowing God more fully. Thanks be to God. Amen


Gethin Rhys said...

According to the compilers of this year's One World Week service, "God's love letter" comes from Ernesto Cardenal, who wrote the words in New York but was, of course, Nicaraguan. Not sure if this makes it more or less mushy!

Ruth said...

Thanks Gethin - perhaps I'd better remove the comment altogether, for fear of being thought to be stereotyping!