Sabbath Day Thoughts
“14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”–Galatians 5:14-15
We all grow up with rules, guidelines that keep us on the right path and help us to live within our families. My Jewish friend Nan was taught to keep the most important rule of all posted on the doorway of her home, right about shoulder height. There, within a small metal container called a mezuzah, is a tiny parchment scroll inscribed with the words from Deuteronomy 6, “Shema! Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul with all your might.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because I say it in church, each first Sunday when we share the Lord’s Supper.
When I was teaching English to seminarians in Chicago, I noticed that many of my Korean students had the Ten Commandments posted in their homes, imitation stone tablets with the words of the commands carved, not in Hebrew, but in Korean. In fact, one student gave me my own miniature tablets as a thank you gift. I can’t read a word of it, of course, but I know what they say all the same.
Now you families out there, I know from visiting your homes that you have household rules, and I even know a couple of families who post their rules as gentle reminders. It’s mostly positive practical wisdom like “be kind, be helpful, do your homework.”
We even get into the whole rule-posting act at the church. In 2006, the Session developed the “Statement of Respectful Communication.” The statement encourages all to interact with mutual regard and common decency. Then in 2007, the Session developed a Covenant of Conduct that provides helpful guidance and support for how we air our grievances. Those yellow and green policy statements have been posted on the walls, for us and for those who use our well-used building, ever since.
In my home when I was growing up, one of our rules was “No Biting.” We must have been much wilder children than those of you who only need the guidance to be kind, be helpful, and do your homework. My brother, sister, and I are all two years apart in age. My brother Scotty, being the only boy and the oldest, had his own room. He liked to keep the door shut and posted with signs like, “Keep Out” and “No Girls Allowed.” The trouble was that my little sister Mary and I adored our big brother, and his efforts to carve out some boy space only left us all the more determined to find our way in.
It happened one day while Mary and I were invading his space. Perhaps driven wild by our girlish pestering, my brother bit me, right there on the forearm, not gently either. It left a big angry red ring and tiny puncture marks where his sharp little eyeteeth poked the skin.
Drawn by the screaming and wailing that soon followed, my mother rushed upstairs, wanting to know, “What’s all this about?”
“He bit me!” I cried, waving my arm in front of her face.
“Andrew Scott White,” my mother said. We all fell silent at that. And then my mother, that earthy farm girl, did something that no parenting guru in their right mind would ever recommend doing. “Give me your arm” she said. We were all looking a little worried, and I had completely forgotten my mortal wound.
Scott showed her his arm. And then, she bit it, not hard or mean, like he had bitten me, but enough to leave a big slobbery spot on it. Our mouths all dropped open. “Did you like that?” she asked my brother.
“No! It’s yucky,” he answered.
“That’s right,” she said. “No biting.” Not one of us ever bit the other again.
In his letter to the churches in Galatia, the Apostle Paul cautions Christians about the dangers of biting. Just a few years before, Paul and his good friend Barnabas had made a brave first missionary journey traveling through the Roman province of Galatia, in what is now Turkey, taking the good news of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike. In Galatia, Paul had planted a series of Gentile house churches, fledgling communities of faith that grew and worked together to follow the Way of Jesus.
“Who is right?” the Galatians debate. Is it Paul with his promise that in Jesus Christ, God has done something new by welcoming Gentiles as Gentiles into the covenant of Abraham? Or is it these new teachers, who want to turn us into a bunch of proselytes and get us in compliance with the Torah? The debate grows heated in Galatia with factions forming and feuding. Soon the conflict is so explosive that Paul cautions, “If you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” It’s as if the Gentile Christians in Galatia have become like wild beasts, consumed in a deadly struggle that will undoubtedly destroy their churches.
Paul insists that God really doesn’t care whether or not we are circumcised or what we eat for dinner. What really matters to God is love. We are to love God and love one another as Christ has loved us. Love. That’s the law in a nutshell, the simplest, most beautiful, and most difficult path that we can choose to walk in life.
The path of love demands that we put an end to behaviors that exploit and demean others, like adultery, promiscuity, and pornography. The path of love insists that we stop the worship of false idols, like money, political party, our consumer culture, and celebrity. The path of love requires that we give up old bad habits that tear the fabric of our community, like racial hate, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, petty arguments, and factions. The path of love tells us that the abuse of drugs and alcohol is never a good way to go. The path of love is all about freely giving of ourselves for the up-building of our community. The path of love shines bright for all to see when we turn to one another with the qualities that Paul names in his letter to the Galatians: joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Along the path of love, there is no biting.
Whether we care to admit it or not, we know a little bit about biting and nibbling on one another, even in church. We get prickly about whether the candles are straight in worship, and we can get downright grumpy over who uses the building, if they pay, and what kind of condition they leave it in — and don’t get me started on the kitchen. We know a little something about strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, petty arguments, and factions.
It’s not just about being church, is it? It’s about our work places, our civic organizations, our classrooms, our homes. Love is always more important than being right, winning the argument, or getting our way. Wounding the spirit of our beloved ones is like taking a big bite. It breaks trust and tears down relationship. Wounds like that are hard to heal.
Neither Paul nor I are suggesting that we are called to be doormats for love’s sake. Rather, love must be the centering ethic that we choose for our relationships – and that naturally bids us to ponder well the role we play within the lives of others. Paul calls us to a better way. God really doesn’t care whether our candles are straight or crooked or lit. God probably doesn’t care whether we make all the best decisions about our building use. God probably really doesn’t give two hoots about the mess that gets left in the kitchen sink. What really matters to God is love. We are to love God and love one another as Christ has loved us.
Love. That’s the law in a nutshell, the simplest, most beautiful, and most difficult path that we can choose to walk. Let us walk that path together. The path of love is all about freely giving of ourselves for the up-building of others. It shines bright for all to see when we turn to one another with joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Let us love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. No biting, my friends.