“Teach me the whole law,” a Gentile once demanded of Rabbi Shammai. Not a bad request, to be sure, until he tacked on this stipulation: “Do this while I’m standing on one foot.” Living up to his short-tempered reputation, Shammai grabbed a stick and with it drove away his would-be student.
Undeterred, the Gentile next visited Rabbi Hillel, repeating the same challenge: “Teach me the whole law while I’m standing on one foot.” Hillel responded, “‘What is hateful to you, to your neighbor don’t do.’That’s the entirety of the law; everything else is commentary. So go, study.”
Hillel is basically right. At its essence, the law is simple, uncomplicated. You can learn it all, yes, while standing on one foot. “What is hateful to you, to your neighbor don’t do.” St. Paul nods in agreement: “The whole law is fulfilled in one statement: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And our Lord echoes them both, adding love toward God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commands hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Everything else is commentary.
But a happy commentary it is not. The rest of the Law and Prophets comment on how folks learned the whole law standing on one foot, while using their other foot to kick their neighbor. Cain took out his anger at the heavens by reddening the earth with his brother’s blood. Rape-hungry Sodomites attempted to gratify their lust on Lot’s two out-of-town visitors. Belly-aching Israelites got sick of God’s food and wanted to stone God’s prophet. Saul hounded David; David impregnated Bath-Sheba and murdered her husband; Bath-Sheba’s grandfather, Ahithophel, became a “Judas Iscariot” to King David during Absalom’s coup and wound up slipping a noose around his own neck.
These stories make most soap operas look like kindergarten pageants. The unkept command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is abbreviated to what is quite keep-able: “You shall love...yourself.” So it still remains beyond the walls of this church, where in the name of self-love, murder masquerades as compassion, perversion as entertainment, and the god of this world keeps cranking up the volume as Whitney Houston sings that “loving yourself is the greatest love of all.”
But of all those who act in self-love, those with the greatest guilt are not “out there” but in here, in the pew, around the altar, standing within this pulpit. Because to those to whom much is given, much will be required. Think of it this way: who is worse, the child or the adult who steals from some store? Even though the child may know that what he’s doing is wrong, because he is immature and doesn’t fully comprehend the gravity of his actions, we can at least partially excuse his behavior. But the mature adult, who knows very well that what he does is forbidden and consciously violates that law, we cannot excuse. And we are the mature adults, those within the church, not the immature children of the world. We have violated not that of which we are ignorant, but that of which we are fully aware. If you want proof, simply look at how well we attempt to cover up our evil deeds. We know well to wear gloves when we stab others in the back. Our skillfulness at acting out lies would make Hollywood jealous. Over time, with enough practice, we can begin to convince ourselves that—since no thunderbolt has fallen from the skies—God must be winking at our “naughtiness.”
Lord, have mercy. What more is there to say? If the law really has one thing to say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” then we law-breakers really have only one thing with which to respond: “Lord, have mercy.” Not, “O God, give me another chance and I’ll...” Not, “But God, I really didn’t mean to...” Not, “O Lord, I promise to make it up to you by...” If the law is learned while standing on one foot, the best response thereafter is to drop to both knees and pray, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy, for your law I have not kept.”
It is mercy that your Lord wants to give. That is His greatest delight. An ancient tradition has it that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the heavenly choirs started to break out in song, but the Lord silenced them, chiding, “The works of my hands are drowning and you want to sing!?” Hell is not the laughingstock of heaven.The Lord takes no delight in the death of the sinner. Rather, He takes pleasure in those who are cleansed through the sacrifice in which He did delight.
If all the Law and the Prophets hang on the words, “Love God and love your neighbor,” those words hang on something else. On the crucifix they hang. As St. Paul testifies, “[Christ] canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). The two tablets of the law are suspended from the tree of sacrifice, for on that tree their demands have been met. God threatens to punish all who break these commandments, but He punishes His Son in your stead and for your sake. He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments, and that grace and blessing He gives you, for Jesus has kept the commandments on your behalf. What was given at Sinai is fulfilled at Calvary. The lawgiver keeps His own law; the judge takes the criminal’s place; and you go free.
For the joy set before Him, Jesus has done all this. Your salvation is His joy. He gladly bore the thorns that you might wear the crown of glory. He willingly was stripped of His robes that you might be clothed in His righteousness. He readily loved those who hated Him, for He loves the unlovable, and in so doing, transforms them into His friends.
And what is most remarkable is that He still loves you. Despite your lies, He speaks the truth when He says, “You are mine.” Despite your self-love, He never stops loving the selfishness out of you and leading you into love for your neighbor. Despite the fact that He sees the deep, dark, hidden evils within you that you think you’ve hidden from all the world, He nevertheless sees you not as an enemy but as a precious child, one for whom He gave His life, one for whom all His suffering was worthwhile. For if earthly fathers delight in their children, how much more does your heavenly Father delight in you!