October 23, 2011

ON THE SECOND COMMANDMENT

Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 23 October 2011

 

Reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18

Reading from the Gospel:                           Matthew 22: 34-46

 

It used to be said, and I suspect it still is, that you cannot order someone to be loving.  Now that might be true among people of no religion or faith, but certainly it is not true among Jews and Christians and, when they are being true to the Koran, among Muslims as well.  Our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is quite clear that we can be ordered to be loving.  Every verb in the words that Moses is called upon to speak by the LORD is in the imperative mood.  And it is a long list of imperatives.  Look at them one more time.

You shall be holy.

          You shall not render an unjust judgement.

          You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great.

          You shall judge your neighbour with justice.

          You shall not go around as a slanderer.

          You shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour.

          You shall not hate in your heart.

         You shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself.

         You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.

         You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

That is a list of ten imperatives, Ten Commandments if you will.  And they are just as serious and just as demanding upon us as are the more familiar Ten Commandments of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. And, I would add, they are much more difficult to keep, if we rely upon our own so-called strengths.

From our Gospel reading we see that Jesus rated this list of Ten Commandments as virtually on a par with the more familiar Ten.  When asked about the commandment that was greatest, he did not choose any of the more familiar Ten, but selected words from Deuteronomy 6 and Joshua 22.  And then without any pause he added the Tenth Commandment from this list in Leviticus, describing it as like what he calls the First Commandment, that is, that it is on a par with it.  In other words, for Jesus, this list of Ten Commandments in Leviticus is more important than the so-called Ten Commandments that you may have learned in Sunday School, and the Tenth Commandment tops them all.

If we were reading Luke’s version of this incident in the Gospel passage, we would go on to hear again the parable of the Good Samaritan as the answer that Jesus gave to the question: Who is my neighbour? That is one of the many parables that Matthew does not include in his version of the Gospel.  Matthew’s concern is to remind his audience of what they should have known from the days of their childhood.  If they had paid attention to the readings from the Torah during Sabbath worship in the Synagogue, they would have known what Jesus would have said.

This list in Leviticus, and in the original Hebrew it is the second person singular, “thou shalt”, is one that challenges individual conduct.  It is not a matter of doing something because everybody else is doing it, so avoiding personal responsibility for ones actions and words.  We cannot hide under that particular comforter.  Nor can we use the excuse that we did not know what was meant by Leviticus 19.  How much clearer does it have to be before people grasp what it means “to love your neighbour as yourself”?  If you do not claim to be a person of faith, a person who does not pretend to abide by the Word of God as revealed in Holy Scripture, you might just have an excuse.  But nobody who comes to Church, no one who reads the Bible, no one who claims to believe in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit has any excuse for not being fully aware of what is meant by “to love your neighbour as yourself”! If we accept the statement that “the Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the round world and all who dwell therein”, then many of the things that we say should never be said, many of the things we think should never be thought, and many of the things we do should never be done.

Much of what we read in Leviticus 19 has to do with how we look at one another.  All too often we are quick to condemn someone because he or she is not like us.  It could be that someone does not look like us.  Moses was a victim of this sort of pre-judging, or prejudice.  He was criticized because he had married a black African woman!  Racial prejudice is not something new to our generation and our peoples; it has been raising its ugly presence in all manner of ways, shapes and forms from the very first time one family confronted another.  British children were taught in their nursery rhymes to detest the French, and French children were taught to detest the English – and that is bigotry and hatred between two nations who are to all outer appearances of much the same stock, at least to those who are not English or French.  When we add to that other more obvious elements, well all too many people prejudge others by appearance.  We Brits, and those descended from Brits, are expert at this – it is almost in our genes! But it is also engrained in the cultures of other nations and peoples.  I have lived in situations where I have been very much of the minority group, and like anyone else in such a position I have been the recipient of words and deeds based on prejudice and bias.  Yet Jesus once said that the Queen of Sheba would find her way into Heaven before the Scribes and Pharisees, and she would do so because, although she was Black and African and a woman, she recognized that the Lord God was at work in Solomon – oh and he was, by the way, a Jew!  As the Psalmist maintained, as we saw just now, all who dwell in the round world belong to the Lord.  That means, whether we like it or not, we are all one big, but not necessarily happy family!

And how quick we are to belittle those who do not speak in the same way as we do!  Was it not Winston Churchill, who had a British father and an American mother, who once said that Americans and Brits are two peoples separated by a common language?   What a New Yorker calls the subway, the Londoner calls the Tube, and what a New Yorker calls the Tube, the Londoner calls the Telly.  And New Yorkers and Londoners are talking about totally different notions when they speak about being mad about their flat.  The one is expressing anger about a punctured tyre, while the other is expressing delight about some urban accommodation!  Those are comparatively trivial examples, but we are faced with more serious implications when it is not just words in a so-called common language, but totally different languages.

Let me be frank and express gratitude that I was born in the English-speaking part of the World.  If I had had to learn English as a second language I am not sure that I would have made it.  Of all the languages that I have been called upon to work in, English is the most difficult. I am not sure that I should express gratitude that English-speakers sought to bring the rest of the World under some sort of cultural domination, but I have yet to visit a country where English is totally unknown, and I have been to over a hundred.  But there have been circumstances in which I was forced to use another language or to rely on an interpreter, if I could find one.  It is not a pleasant experience to be looked at as some sort of idiot because I did not speak the local idiom.  And let us face it, most of us who only speak English, or some form of it, tend to look down on others who have little or no English.

I get tired of being told that we live in an English-speaking country, when we live in a country that is named for an Italian and in a state with a Spanish name!   We live in an English-speaking country simply because conquerors and colonists of old chose to insist on people using English because they were too lazy or too inept to learn to speak the languages of those who were already living here.  English here, as everywhere else in the World including England, is the language of conquerors and imperialists.  If you choose to be seen as a conqueror or an imperialist, go ahead and demand that others learn your language – but if you seek to abide by what Jesus calls the Second Commandment, you had better try to follow his example.  He was a Jew, brought up in an Aramaic-speaking community, which worshipped the Lord in Hebrew.  He might have had a smattering of Greek as he seems to have been able to communicate with Greek-speakers.  And you have to wonder what language was spoken when Jesus and Pontius Pilate had their confrontation.  Would Pilate, born in a Latin-speaking environment, have spoken Aramaic or Hebrew with any fluency?  Hardly!  Did Jesus have any knowledge of Latin?  Probably not!  So they groped for the Truth in a language in which neither was brought up.

The Church, which is the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, has always proclaimed its message in the languages of the people to whom it was addressed.  The New Testament is in Greek because it was first addressed to Greek-speakers.  From their mother’s knee, Christian children have always said their prayers to the King of Heaven in their mother tongue.  There is nothing especially Heavenly about English.  It had not yet been created when the New Testament was written.  God the Father hears the prayers of those who can only speak English, because he hears what is in our hearts rather than what is on our lips.

And this brings us back to one of those Ten Commandments of Leviticus 19, and that is No. 7 – You shall not hate in your heart.  I might be wrong – I hope I am wrong – but all too often I detect in the way some people talk about others that what is in their hearts is not what is called for in Commandment No. 10 – You shall love your neighbour as yourself – but what No. 7 commands should not be there, hatred.  As I say, I hope I am wrong.  We might hide it under all sorts of legalistic and cultural niceties, but prejudice and bias, which are the fruits of hatred, make themselves all the more obvious the more we try to hide them under legalisms and niceties.  It might not be hatred.  I hope it is not hatred.  It might simply be fear of the unfamiliar.  Yet the Scriptures have a word of instruction about fear.  Is it not written that perfect love casts out fear?  So if we love someone, we do not fear them and so any cause for hatred is removed.  And surely what the Ten Commandments of Leviticus 19 give us is well-proved way of loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Now, I cannot make you love one another.  I cannot make you love me.  But I can learn to love you, and that is all I can ask of anyone.  After all, it is all that Jesus taught us to do one towards the other.  In that way you become a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, which, propaganda notwithstanding, is by far the best nation of which to be a citizen.