I love this interchange Jesus has with one of the Pharisees about what is the “greatest commandment.” In the Hebrew Bible one can count 613 commandments, so designating the greatest could be a daunting task! 250 of them are positive, outlining what a faithful follower of Judaism should do. The remaining 361 are negative, showing what not to do. While there are more negative than positive, still I am struck with the proportion between the two: there are more positive commandments than I would have thought. The knotted fringe of the traditional prayer shawl represents all 613. I would like to imagine that at prayer and worship, one becomes literally wrapped in these commandments.
In answer to the Pharisee Jesus says, “’…You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”’ (Matthew 22:37-49) This first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema. It begins: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone…” It is so endemic to Jewish belief and worship that it is recited at morning and evening prayer, much as we pray the Lord’s Prayer at each daily office.
We may have come to think of commandments as dry rules handed down on stony tablets by an authoritarian God. There are many cartoons, memes, and movies that illustrate this notion. (Those of a certain generation will always hear the voice of Moses as the stentorian Charlton Heston). So, I am grateful to Br. David Vryhof, SSJE for giving me a different way of looking at them. In his ministry as a spiritual director, he has encountered many persons trying to discern God’s will for them in a particular situation, or when at a key turning point in their lives. The question was often framed as, “What does God want from me right now?” Br. David would gently counter with these words:
“God does not ask anything from us that is not also in our best interests and for our greatest good. What God requires of us are those things that God knows will bring us the greatest fulfillment and deepest satisfaction in life, even when we may think otherwise. So, when God commands, we should listen, because God is not only asking something from us but is also offering to do something for us.”
The two commandments Jesus has lifted up for us, if practiced, keep us connected with God and each other. They support the relational aspects of God that we see and experience in the Trinity: the flow back and forth, the receiving and embracing, the very dance of life. They support our aliveness and our wellbeing. As we hear in Psalm 1: [We can become] like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither…” (Psalm 1:3) Yet there are so many circumstances that pull us away from God and each other. Violence and division seem to be surging, ravaging our spirits. How can we hang onto hope; how can it be renewed? I associate Psalm 1 with these words from Job 14:
“For there is hope for a tree,
if it is cut down, that it will sprout again
and that its shoots will not cease.
Though its root grows old in the earth
and its stump dies in the ground,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth branches like a young plant.”
In contemplating these commandments, I have reflected on those things that bring me back when I go astray, that give me a leg up, that fill in the gaps, that support me when I am not feeling strong. I thought of a few. First, I am grateful for more than two decades of recovery in a 12-step program. One of the key teachings of the twelve-step program is: “Keep coming back.” At each meeting someone is bound to say it. It is simple, a kind of mantra; yet, put into practice, it can have a profound effect on one’s recovery. It is a recognition that healing does not always happen instantaneously. At first, we may not even know what we are looking for, only that something is broken or missing. In step one we have acknowledged that we are powerless. The 12 steps become a kind of lifeboat, keeping us afloat until we reach calmer waters. Like a rule of life, they act as a trellis or set of garden stakes, keeping us supported while we grow and recover. I think the commandments are meant to function in the same way.
Second, I rely on the Episcopal liturgy when I have no word of my own to pray. My well can be running dry, yet it is there, a beloved framework to help me express my love for God and neighbor. And it matters that I share it with others. We join our voices with angels and archangels after all! Liturgy is the work of the people. None of us has to carry it alone. Day by day, week by week, year by year, Jesus feeds us in the Eucharist, washes our feet, stretches out his hand in healing. He gets in the boat with us, calming the storms. Even after many years of participating in worship with these sets of prayers, some familiar, and some not, there can still be a word or phrase that breaks through my numbness, that renews my spirit. Sometimes it is the motions of worship that sustain me, even without the words.
Third, in my individual prayer time I sometimes rely on rosary beads, or hold a stone found at the beach in my hands. Having something concrete to hold onto is comforting, grounding. A simple phrase, repeated over and over is enough to lift me out of myself, to cross the threshold into God’s presence. I step my foot into a stream of prayer that has gone on before me for millennia, and will continue after I am gone. A number of years ago I became aware that a friend of mine was going through some difficult times. I gave her a rosary that I had particularly loved—to the point where it had broken apart, even though the beads were all there. I hoped that by holding it in her hands, she too could join her ragged spirit to those who had prayed before he, who were invisibly praying with her.
Words and prayers and liturgies may wash over us, not even making logical sense. Yet, if we keep coming back, we may learn a new sense of being grounded, of having renewed spiritual, emotional, and physical health. I thought of some words from the great hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:
“O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart; O take and seal it;
seal it for thy courts above.”—Robert Robinson
Ultimately, the point of the commandments Jesus has commended to us is that we know love. By following them we are brought in proximity to God’s loving kindness. As our presiding bishop is fond of saying, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” On Maundy Thursday we commemorate the Last Supper and the Foot Washing. The word “Maundy”—I admit to having to look this up about every year—comes from the Latin mandatum, which means commandment. It comes from Jesus’ loving words to his disciples: ‘“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”’ (John 13:34-35) “In this way, love keeps us safe in faith and hope, and hope leads us deeper in love. And in the end, all shall be love.”—Julian of Norwich