Wandering the savage garden…

December 2012Monthly Archives

The greatest commandment

I was thinking about what Jesus said the greatest commandment was: to love the Lord your God with everything you are… and what does that mean?

Here’s the text from which it’s drawn:

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

(Matthew 22:34-39 ESV)

Here, Jesus is referring to Deuteronomy 6:5:

5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

(Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV)

Now, this is simple text, right? It has some axiomatic concepts that are pretty obvious:

  1. The Lord exists. (Otherwise, what is to be loved?)
  2. You exist. (Otherwise, what is performing the act of dedication?)
  3. The Lord is supreme. (Otherwise, this is not a “command,” but a… simple aphorism, I suppose.)
  4. You are to commit yourself wholly to the Lord.

There are some others that are also implied, but in my experience they’re rarely discussed.

The commandment is one of total dedication to the Lord. There’s nothing wrong with that; many, however, take it to mean that you subvert everything you are, in order to experience that dedication.

Yet… is that what God wants from us? To become mindless shells?

The sages – and the second greatest commandment – say “no.”

We are to “love our neighbors as we love ourselves,” paraphrased. The key phrase, the empowering phrase, is “… as we love ourselves.” How can we love others if we subjugate who we are? How can we love God if we are not as He made us to be?

To be a certain way – regardless of what that “way” might be – we must first be.

We are to love; we are to respect ourselves such that we can respect others; we must own who we are, or else the offering to God (of our souls, minds, and strength, in the “greatest commandment”) is worthless.

We are the contradiction.

Can God do anything He wants? Can He endure evil? If He can, why does He not do so, for the love of those He calls children?

I was thinking along these lines because of the school shooting in Connecticut. I found myself horrified; why, השם, do You allow this?

And then, because I love tautologies, I ended up thinking about some old questions:

  • How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (And which dance would it be? If it’s “Gangnam Style,” someone shoot me now.)
  • Can God create a boulder so large that He could not lift it?

I don’t know of an absolute answer to those that would satisfy me.

The boulder question is easier; God cannot contradict His nature, because otherwise it’s not His nature.

You cannot decide to not be yourself; even if you tried, that would be you, yourself, deciding to alter who you are such that the “new you” was still you, and the attempt would have been part of your nature in the first place.

A similar logic applies to “Do I exist?” — the question implies the answer. If you do not exist, you are unable to ask the question. Therefore, since you are able to ask the question, you exist, and the question isn’t worth answering.

So God would not create a boulder so large that He could not lift it, because He would exceed the creation; yet, if He could exceed His creation, He could do so. They are all possibilities, restricted only by God’s identity and intent.

I don’t know how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; I don’t think numbers in our frame of reference would apply. Therefore, my only answers would be “infinity,” or “as many as God desires.”

From a mechanical standpoint, of course, you’d factor in the actual pin’s surface area, the size of the angels in question, and the area required for them to dance; that’s just math, and while it’s funny to think about it that way, it’s not really relevant.

And now we come to the horror in Connecticut. Here’s a rough transcription of my questions to God:

  1. My God, what have You done? (“What Have You Done” is a song from an amateur musician I found that sums this up pretty well.)
  2. How could You allow this?
  3. How could You ever allow this?
  4. You love us, enough to die on the cross for us. How can this encompass this horror? (And yet it has to. All have sinned (Romans 3:23); whoever believes in Him shall be with Him in glory (John 3:16). I could not do this. I am not God, thank God.)
  5. If You loved us enough to die for us, how then can You endure our presence, in that we defy You and desecrate Your Name?

And there we have the primary question for me.

How can a holy and just God, even factoring in His grace and mercy, endure us? How can a merciful and loving God not endure those of us whom He calls children?

Of course, He died for us, so that His nature covers ours; that’s an easy problem to analyze. However, the thought of the contradiction still lingers.

How can God endure what He sees here on earth?

I don’t have a simple answer. However, I think that the problem is in how we see Him, not in Him.

We continually apply our mathematics to Him; it doesn’t apply. For God, if 2+2=5, that is the truth as He wills it.

We continually apply our sense of justice as equals to Him. We do not kill (I hope!), because those whom we might kill are our equals before God and before us; God has no equal. His sense of justice is absolute, and we cannot properly understand it.

We apply our limits to Him, and they don’t apply.

Consider: we scream against Him when someone we love is hurt. “How could you do this? This person did nothing to You or anyone else!”

Yet that’s not true, is it? Remember, all have sinned. We are all guilty. Even if our sin’s guilt is removed from us, we still bear the consequences of that sin.

All of us have the potential for horror; God knows everything we are and will be. His actions are based on criteria we cannot know; we cannot judge Him as equals.

Sure, I understand people applying their own perspectives to God; that’s how we’re wired. I’m sure He understands, on some levels.

Yet that doesn’t make it proper. We cannot judge God.


Context! Is! Everything!

I was reading Romans 7 today, after one of our pastors did a study on Romans 6 last night, and something stood out.

In Romans 6:15-23, Paul is talking about being slaves to righteousness; no longer are we slaves to sin, but we are slaves to righteousness, to which we are indebted and from which we derive obedience.

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!

(Romans 6:15 ESV)

Yet the law has not passed away, because it is the baseline from which we can determine righteousness, even though we’re not justified by the law. It serves to condemn us (Romans 1) and inform us (Romans 7:7).

And there we proceed to Romans 7:

7:1 Or do you not know, brothers — for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

(Romans 7:1-6 ESV)

Okay… whoa. The thing that stuck out to me was the freedom from law because we have died to it.

I’ve mentioned before the whole concept of freedom in Christ, and here we have it yet again, expressed as freedom from the law as opposed to “freedom in Christ.”

It’s a little more forceful here, though.

Yet the law still has meaning to us, does it not? Or does it? I say it does, because, again, it’s the measure for proper behavior and feeling. (If one has no desire to murder, or steal, or covet, this is good…)

Paul, however, is still thinking like a Hebrew and writing for a Greek audience, using the polemic invective of the day. He is overemphasizing his point, to “scare them straight.”

Scaring Them Straight

“Scaring them straight” is what the anti-drug commercials of Reagan’s presidency were trying to do; overemphasize a point, in the hopes that some of the point remains.

The logic seems to be something like this:

If, for example, someone retains only 10% of a message, we can help them retain 100% of the message is we emphasize it ten times.

This ignores diminishing returns, but it seems to fit the mindset.

Where is Sparta?

Sparta is in Greece, of course. But the declaration – from Zach Snyder’s “300” – of “This! Is! Sparta!” was so … comical that it seemed to fit.

The thing about Paul’s declaration of death to the law – such that we’re free from it – is based on context.

Paul is writing to the Romans; he is explaining the theology to people who may or may not be theologically sound – as shown by his constant references to those who know the law, as a subgroup of the Roman church.

That means that he has two missions for his invective.

One is to connect to those who study the law, who expect the invective and passion. (If you’re not willing to fight for it, you must not believe it very much.)

The other is to overemphasize his point through passion, so that some retention was achieved.

Yet the law does not pass away; we still consider the law the metric for sin.

The key is to remember that Paul’s statement of death to the law is not a final word. It exists in context; it co-exists with everything else said about the Law, which is that it’s the standard by which we are able to judge behavior, and that it communicates to us part of God’s Will.


Find yourself a teacher, and get yourself a friend

One of the things I tell my children all the time is that they should find a teacher and find a friend.

This originally came about as one of my sons found himself a friend, even though that friend wasn’t always leading him in the right direction; I used this dictum to remind myself that the friendship was the more important thing.

I’ve recently done some more research on this concept, because I think it’s important that I understand it more so that I can apply it more properly, and help my children do so as well.

The full statement is in Mishnah Pirkei Avot, 1:6:

Joshua ben Perachyah and Nittai the Arbelite received the Torah from them. Joshua ben Perachyah said: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.

R. Joshua and R. Nittai were נָשִׂיא, nasi, a pair of leaders of the Sanhedrin, roughly two centuries before Christ. The phrase “received the Torah from them” refers to the nasim from the previous line in Pirkei Avot (Yosi ben Yochanan, another nasi), and that line in Pirkei Avot has the same construct, all the way back to Moshe.

This construct therefore is asserting R. Joshua’s authority.

Then we have R. Joshua’s wisdom: “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend; and judge every man towards merit.”

The Teacher

A teacher is one who is worthy of emulation and provides a measure to exceed.

I want to learn to be like my teacher, to be sure; otherwise, he is not my teacher, and I am not his student. (Perhaps we’re friends?)

Yet I wish to be a student who is able to teach some day as well; I don’t want to equal my teacher, I want to excel beyond him. I want to add to the world, not meet it; I want to grow and challenge, not exist.

Finding a teacher is a great challenge. Finding one who has more wisdom might be easy, as in my case – I’m not very wise – but in addition to wisdom, you should find one who is worthy.

No man is perfect, of course, in faith or in life. Here you must examine your own values and responses, to find a teacher whom you are able to respect.

The Friend

A friend is one from whom you can learn, and whom you can correct.

A friend is more valuable than a teacher, because a friend is able to interact differently; a teacher reproves and instructs, but responds only from that perspective, while a friend allows more of a give and take, where you can have a discussion, and contribute.

A friend allows you to be who you are, and reflects you.

A man with bad friends is a man who needs help. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough (Galatians 5:9), which works in two ways:

  • A good man among bad friends (friends of low character) can serve as a light to them, to raise them up.
  • A good man among bad friends is also in danger of being corrupted by those friends.

Therefore, one can have bad friends, yet you should tread very carefully among them, such that you are not being misled by them – and note also that you will share their reproachfulness, which we are to avoid (1Tim 3:2, although this is an instruction for an overseer.)

Yet even this is dangerous and unfortunate. A friend is one with whom you can be yourself, being unguarded and authentic. Yet if you’re warding your heart against poor influences, you’re not unguarded.

Among bad friends, then, you need to rise above and beyond them, drawing them up with you.

Otherwise, you are one with them.

Judge every man toward merit

I love this sentiment.

This statement means to choose the best perception of everyone, until proven otherwise.

As a parent, this is difficult, because a child needs instruction, while judging him towards merit means assuming positive conclusions he may not actually deserve.

Sometimes, after all, the child actually lies, for example, as opposed to the more positive judgement that he “was mistaken in his mind.”

But again, the wisdom is in choosing the best every time it is possible to do so. Assuming the best means you have a joyous heart, seeing the glory of God in everything around you, and it gives those with whom you are something to attain.

It’s your positive assumption of them that sets a bar for them to meet.

And in doing so, you become a teacher, and a friend.