By Jeremy Worthen
Loving God brings true freedom.
“Stop telling me what to do!” I couldn’t exactly date it, but I’m pretty sure there was a time in the cycle of family life when that was a reasonably frequent refrain in the Worthen household. I mean from the children, of course, unthinkable as it seems when they were once so angelic and are now so grown up and responsible. “Stop telling me what to do!” is a characteristically childish thing to say, but whatever age we are we also may sometimes want to yell it out. Generally speaking, human beings don’t like being ordered about. We don’t like being told what to do, and we can become pretty ratty pretty quickly if we think that’s how someone is treating us.
We also happen to live in a culture that is perhaps more systematically hostile to authority than any other in human history so far. We celebrate freedom, and define it precisely as not being told what to do but being able to express my unique individual self in whatever way I choose to do so (so long as I do not limit the freedom of others in the process, or, worst of all, tell them what to do). Rules, laws, commandments, edicts: we bristle at the very thought of them, acknowledging that they are necessary in some cases to prevent harm, but nothing to do with what makes life worth living, what makes life fulfilling. And the idea of unconditional obedience and submission to someone else — it seems virtually barbaric, with no place at all in a modern democratic society.
All of this — and rather more besides — makes it difficult for us to enjoy Psalm 119, by far the longest Psalm in the Bible, from which we sang the opening verses a few moments ago. “You, O Lord, have charged / that we should diligently keep your commandments. O that my ways were made so direct / that I might keep your statutes.” And so it goes on, for 176 verses, with a section for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet in which each of the eight verses begins with that letter, and running continual permutations on eight different Hebrew terms that get translated as “testimonies,” “commandments,” “statutes,” etc.
The whole thing is a kind of huge, intricate and elaborate love song to God’s Torah, usually translated into English as “law” (as in the first verse here): “Lord, how I love your law!,” the Psalmist says at verse 97. It is a love song that never tires of repeating how wonderful the beloved is, how important the beloved is, how lost I would be without you — but does not seem to go anywhere, because it so pleased just to be in this one place, contemplating what it loves.
But how can anyone love the law? Surely only people from the past besotted with legalism, and perhaps in the contemporary world Health and Safety Inspectors, and we’re Christians, so we’re though with all that Old Testament stuff, aren’t we? Isn’t Christianity all about love rather than law, not loving the tired old law itself?
I think we need to tread rather warily here. Debate about what it means to follow the law of God goes right back to the origins of Christianity, and indeed such debate is perhaps an integral part of Christianity itself. But we need to be careful that we do not read what Paul or Jesus has to say about God’s law, God’s Torah, with the undertow of secular ideas about freedom or indeed our own sinful self-will dragging us off the point and preventing us from listening carefully to what Scripture may be telling us here.
When asked in Mark’s Gospel by a friendly scribe, “Which commandment is the first of all?,” Jesus happily gets into a conversation about how best to relate all the different commandments found in the first five books of the Bible in an integrated way to the challenge of being faithful to God today, here and now. At no point does he say or imply that we can put a line through some of them, or most of them. He does say that God’s commandments are all about love — love of God, the divine other, and love of neighbor, the human other — and that this is critical for interpreting them.
This is indeed “much more important than whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices,” as the scribe suggests, standing and talking within the temple courts. But if the commandments are all about love, Jesus also assumes with the writer of Psalm 119 that loving God is all about commandments: that it is about walking in the way, the path, that God has revealed through his Torah, which we might better translate as his teaching, instruction, or guidance. We love God by paying attention to what he has said and is saying, and this is not something for us to make up or invent for ourselves. God has spoken to his people, most eloquently at Sinai, and we need to listen to this speaking which addresses us today, just as it addressed men and women on the long trek through the wilderness from Egypt to Israel.
Love is about commandments, and the commandments are about love. Jesus is not saying anything obviously novel here as he holds a discussion with a fellow Jewish teacher in the precincts of the temple in Jerusalem. We might almost say he gives a textbook answer, from Deuteronomy 6, with a verse that came to have cardinal importance for Jewish thought and worship and which clearly has a pivotal role within Deuteronomy itself: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
All the commandments are about love, Moses tells the people in Deuteronomy, and love is the meaning of everything he is telling them. Yet love is also about commandments: recognizing the call to love God as an imperative, as something we are bound to do, and living that love through devotion and, yes, love for the precious guidance that we receive from God: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” That is what Psalm 119 is about. That is why it became part of our Scriptures: a love song to God’s teaching because this is the best way to write a love song to God himself.
And I think there is an important clue here, because there is one time, and one time only, it seems to me, in our contemporary culture, when being completely focused on doing whatever someone else says and responding to whatever someone else wants is considered acceptable: falling in love. And why not? We are in a place where the usual division, separation, between self and other strangely dissolves: what makes me happy is whatever makes you happy; I find fulfilment in your fulfilment; your life is completely bound up with mine. And because of that, the usual opposition between doing what I want and doing what other people tell me is overcome.
Now, that is our best comparison, I think, for what Scripture has to say to us about law and love. It’s not about doing what we are told by someone of whom we are afraid, whom we do not trust, who we need to keep at arm’s length. It is about being in love with the divine, in all its beauty and glory and majesty and kindness, and therefore wanting to do nothing other than attend as closely as possible to all that brings joy to God and rejoicing to do anything, even the smallest thing, that can express our thankfulness for the gift of knowing this God, of friendship with the eternal one.
I’m under no illusion that there are few people for whom the spiritual life is just like that all the time — certainly not me. But if we have no sense of what that might mean, that being in love with God, then I don’t think the Bible will make very much sense, and I don’t think in the long run church will make very much sense either. For the Bible and the Church are there to invite people into joyful friendship with God and to discover there the truth and the glory of who we really are. Now, we all hesitate and stumble and drag our feet about responding to that invitation. But do we glimpse how amazing and life-changing it is to live this way? As the Psalmist says, ‘Blessed are those who keep his testimonies / and seek him with their whole heart.’
What Jesus says in Mark 12 about the law is not new. What is new is that it is he who says it. He is the one who both speaks the call to love God with his whole being and responds to the call to love God with his whole being. His life rests in the love of God, fully and completely. And therefore, like the scribe who approaches him in the temple, we can begin to see in him what the teaching of God, the law of God, really means, and in his company, following in his footsteps, we can begin to live it out day by day.
We don’t have to choose between being told what to do by others and selfishly being ruled by our own fluctuating and often destructive desires. Instead, we can find true freedom in living for the one who loved us and gave himself for us, Jesus Christ, God with us.
The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Worthen is team rector of Ashford Town Parish in the Diocese of Canterbury.