Sunday, October 29, 2017


You shall love God  with all your heart, soul
and mind.  You shall love  your neighbor as
yourself. These two commandments contain the whole law.             
Matthew 22:34-40

Human beings have a way of complicating things. This is definitely true when it comes to religion. I like to compare religion to a beautiful antique table that has been covered with an accumulation of layers and layers of old paint that needs to be stripped to recover its original beauty.

Incapable of seeing that its real beauty has become invisible to the eye, some people tend to throw religion on the trash heap as worthless. Not being able to see the priceless antique below the old paint, they put in a yard sale and let it go for a $1.00 when, if they took it to Antique Roadshow, it would be appraised for millions.

This was just as true of religion in Jesus’ day, as it is in our own day. Originally the lives of Jewish people had been guided by the Ten Commandments, but over time those ten commandments had been re-fined and de-fined into hundreds and hundreds of sub-rules and sub-categories until a simple religion of the heart had become so complicated and burdensome that average person, who wanted to do the right thing, needed religious lawyers to help them find their way through it. What had started out as a simple set of guidelines for moral living had become, over time, a burdensome legalist nightmare.

It is in this climate that a scholar of the law asks his question. “Of the hundreds and hundreds of religious laws on the books, which is the greatest?” The question he was asking Jesus was, in reality, “What is the bottom line?”

Jesus cuts through the accumulation of rules and regulations. He reduces the Ten Commandments to two, saying if you keep these two, you will have kept the whole law and the teaching of the prophets. What Jesus said was this: (1) if you love God with your whole heart, soul and mind, you will keep commandments one, two and three, serving God alone and no other, respecting his name and worship him regularly with the faith community; and (2) if you love your neighbor as yourself, you will keep commandments four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten: honoring your parents, not killing others, not committing adultery, not stealing what belongs to others, not lying, not lusting after other people’s relationships and not coveting what belongs to others. If you really keep these two commandments, loving God and loving your neighbor, you have kept the whole law and every part of it.

This is the bottom line! This is the heart and essence of true religion! This is what really counts! Dedicate yourself to doing these things with your whole heart, soul and mind and you will be doing all that God asks of you!

But there has always been a tendency for people to try to be religious without giving God their whole heart, mind and soul. When we do that, we usually seek clarifications about what we have to do and what we can get out of doing and still stay within the law: is this really work, is that really adultery, is this really stealing, what do you mean by keeping the Sabbath holy, is this really killing and what do you mean by honoring one’s parents? When we start down that road, we then end up with a whole bunch of canon lawyers to help us make sure we don’t have to do any more than we have to!

Let me give you an example, using Commandment Three: “Keeping holy the Lord’s Day.” Someone asks, “What does that mean?” “How much of the Mass can I miss?” “How late can I arrive and how early can I leave?” Then the search is on for “what is the least I can do and still get by with!”

It was this approach to religion that Jesus cuts through. For Jesus, true religion was not so much about legal parsing as it was about giving God our whole hearts, souls and minds. If you do that, you will have kept the rules because the whole purpose of the rules is to guide people toward that whole-hearted love.

I am worried about the direction religion is taking these days in reaction to all this. In our country, failing to inspire people to change their behavior, many religious leaders are joining forces with politicians to enact laws to force people be good, whether they want to or not. Jesus himself was a victim of this kind of thinking when church and state created a coalition to kill him. Jesus inspired and invited people to turn their lives around. He did not resort to political power to force them to change, no matter how tempting it might have been. He left people free to choose to love God back or to walk away. Religious enthusiasts attempt to marry religion and politics is short-sighted and scary. Resorting to politics is a sure sign that they no longer have the ability to inspire and lead.

I am also worried about the direction our own church is taking these days. Faced with the painful reality that our church is no longer inspiring people to be good, there is a scary return to a legalistic approach and doctrinal debates. The last gasp of any dying organization is to come out with a newer and newer edition of the rulebooks. When they lose control of the big issues, they micro-manage the little issues. What people need is a joyful Christianity that is a source of life and hope, one that will light fires of love, self-sacrifice and transformation. People want to be good, but they cannot be forced. They must be invited and inspired to that end.

If people love God with their whole minds, hearts and souls, and their neighbors as themselves, they don’t need a lot of laws. If they do not love God with their whole minds, hearts and souls, and their neighbors as themselves, a million new laws won’t help!

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