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The First Rule

The First Rule

Our gospel reading for this coming Sunday, Matthew 22:34-46, depicts the Pharisees and Sadducees again attempting to test Jesus. I like to picture Jesus smiling gently each time one of his opponents unctuously begin to address him by a title they certainly didn’t believe : “Teacher,” they intone, and both Jesus and we know that the game is afoot.

The lectionary for this year omits the interlude in which the Sadducees approach Jesus with a question about marriage in the afterlife, and instead directs us to perhaps the most foundational religious question of Jewish scripture and law, and it was one the sages and lawyers had been arguing about for generations. Which of the 613 commandments in Torah is the greatest? With over 600 commandments to choose from, even winnowing out those about eating, fabric and facial hair, there are still several contenders. Whichever one Jesus chose, he would need to be able to defend his answer. Jesus, five steps ahead of his adversaries as always, answers with a commandment linked to another commandment that together summed up the entire Ten Commandments and all the subsidiary commandments around them.

I was thinking about this situation in the upcoming gospel as I was looking for a prayer request that had disappeared down my Facebook page. Now that so much of our parish’s ministry and liturgy is tied to Facebook, I am chagrined to find myself on that platform as much as ever, even though one of my resolutions back on New Year’s Day was to spend less time there.

Yet one of the fun little amusements that sometimes goes around social media involves a smart phone feature known as “predictive text,” where your phone offers you three words as you type to anticipate shortcuts for those who are rather fumble-fingered. Of course, people on Facebook have turned this feature into an amusing little game. The game usually starts with a prompt—a phrase you type in to start a sentence, and then you chose one of your phone’s three proffered choices,  linked together one word at a time, until a thought is completed. The words and phrases you use most influence the suggestions, I’m told, and given my vocation, already the playing field is probably tilted toward theological language, so I gave it a whirl. Sometimes, you get gibberish. Sometimes, hilarity ensues. Sometimes, though, you get zen-like koans that bring you up short.

I decided to test how smart my phone was as I thought about that lawyer’s question. I typed in this prompt: “The first rule about faith is…” and my phone finished the sentence like this:

“The first rule of faith is that it is not being used to make the most important decisions in the world.”

Well, now.

I am probably going to turn this little gem over in my mind for a while. For a nation that argues a lot about “faith,” trying to twist it into a synonym for “ideology,” which it should be, rather than a descriptor for a determination to stand for what is life-giving in the world. I nonetheless am in agreement that faith is too often not a guide to our actions—unless that faith provides a context for doing what you were going to do anyway. And faith in each other is a sadly missing commodity in so much of our national conversation. We talk about faith, but too often we make decisions out of fear or anxiety or cynicism. 

So then I tried this prompt: “The greatest commandment in scripture is…” and this is what was returned by my phone’s predictive choices:

“The greatest commandment in scripture is to have mercy upon those people who are not in the same place as you are, and help them to learn the truth about God’s love.”

Given that one of my favorite ways to paraphrase Jesus’s answer is from the prophet Micah:

“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Once again it appears that my phone has touched upon part of the inner wisdom of Jesus’s answer to the lawyer.

I now wonder what it would be like, in this time of intense division and vitriol, if we couldn’t be guided by this idea: to deal kindly towards those who are at a different place on their spiritual journey, to listen and converse in kindness in service to deepening our relationships, and in so doing embody God’s love. Because the truth of God’s love is that it never, ever gives up on us. Can we argue that we aren’t called to likewise not give up on each other, as each of us are made in the image and likeness of God?

Jesus’s answer does the same: to love God, love your neighbor. Love your neighbor, and you are demonstrating love for God. Love as a determination to embrace dialogue, even when those with whom you are speaking may not have the most open hearts to your responses. That’s okay. Maybe those observing your dialogue will be the ones to embrace your message.

The first rule is the rule of love, and the faith that flows from love.

The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO.  She posts daily prayers, meditations, and sermons at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.


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