You may remember that Mr Mackay explained the rules of Slade Prison to a new prisoner in an episode of Porridge:
“There are only two rules in this prison: 1 – do not write on the walls. 2 – You obey all the rules.”
Fletcher explained the rules of Slade Prison rather differently:
One: Bide your time. Two: Keep your nose clean. And three: don’t let the blankety blanks grind you down.
There’s a story told of a London barrister who was showing some visitors around his chambers. They commented on the number of law books on his bookshelves. “Yes,” he replied, “they contain every law a British Parliament has ever passed. The ﬁrst volume contains those passed in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. The next three centuries are in seven volumes. There are over 50 volumes in all, with a new volume issued every year. Most of the laws that the present Parliament has passed have never been tested in court”.
It has been said that the more laws you have, the less effective they become. The Bible contains hundreds of laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments. They were followed by many more laws telling the Israelites what to do when every imaginable misdemeanour was brought to trial. These were the written law; but there was also a long tradition of spoken law, explaining how to interpret these texts in more and more detailed circumstances. The scribes were those who made it their profession to record all these rules and regulations, discussing how to apply them to particular cases. It became more and more unwieldy, but some Jews gave up and decided to ignore God’s law altogether because it was too complicated. They weren’t bad people, just too busy, but the scribes described them as ‘the sinners’. Jesus said the ‘sinners’ would enter the kingdom of God ahead of the scribes and Pharisees, because they instinctively went to the heart of what the law was about, and were kinder and more loving people. Before we criticise laws too much, we might do well to remember that there are over 600 rules in the Highway Code, which don’t have a problem with, even if some Farnham drivers seem not to be very interested in them!
There’s a story about an old priest and his cat in which the two were so close that the cat went everywhere with the old priest, even attending worship with him. The cat began to make a nuisance of itself, and when the old priest died, the other priests decided to tie up the car during the service, to stop it walking around. Some years later the cat died, and none of the priests could remember the old priest that the cat belonged to, so they bought a new cat to tie up during the service, because they thought it must be important. When younger priests joined the academy they were too nervous to ask why a cat was tied up during the service, assuming that it was part of the liturgy. And so they too followed carried on tying up a cat during the service.
Years and years later, cats were still being bought in order to be tied up during the service. Nobody knew why, but all sorts of theories were thought up to explain why a cat was tied up during the service, and newcomers were carefully taught the correct way and the correct place to tie up a cat during the service. It came to be considered one of the most important and holy parts of the liturgy and woe betide anyone who dared to question it. Hundreds of years later, learned scholars wrote many books on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat during the service. Thus silly habits can sometimes arise and become enshrined in our collective consciousness, habits which have an origin which is no longer relevant or habits which were never meant to be taken that way in the first place.
Some were questioning all these laws in the Hebrew Bible. A Rabbi was challenged to recite the whole law while standing on one leg. He replied, “what you hate when it’s done to you, don’t do it to your neighbour. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary.”
The centre of the Law, which we heard in our reading from Deuteronomy, was the command to recognise God as the only God (known as the ‘Shema’) and to love God with every aspect of being. This was deemed so central and so important that Jews were instructed to: ‘Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.’ These instructions may not have been meant to be taken literally, but later Jews tied boxes containing strips of parchment on which these words were inscribed, onto their wrists and foreheads.
For many Jews, God was the centre of their lives, with love for God filling their being and determining their every action. But as we know from Jesus’ clashes with some of the authorities, they seemed to be fulfilling the letter of the Law without fulfilling the spirit of the Law.
And our gospel reading told us of a scribe, who’d obviously been puzzling about all this. The Scribe came to Jesus and asked him, “which commandment is the ﬁrst of all?” Jesus answered, “the ﬁrst is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ The commandment to love God, which we heard in Deuteronomy, begins every synagogue service, and is contained in little cylinders which Jews nail to their doorposts. The commandment to love your neighbour is from Leviticus. Originally it only applied to people who lived near your home, or perhaps to all your fellow Jews, but Jesus tells us to love everybody, of every race, without exception.
The scribe agrees with Jesus, whereupon Jesus tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of God. But in the equivalent story in Matthew’s gospel, the question is put to Jesus by a group of Pharisees, in order to trap Jesus into an unwary response.
Jesus was the ﬁrst to put the commandments to love God and your neighbour together, suggesting to us how very important it is to live a life full of love to please God. The two commandments of Jesus have to go together. You can’t claim to love God, and then ignore your neighbour, whom God loves at least as much as he loves you. You’ll fail to love your neighbour if you do it in your own strength; you must love God ﬁrst, then let him pour his love into your heart, so that it’s really God who loves your neighbour, using you as his instrument. I think that the scribe who challenged Jesus could see the connection between loving God and loving your neighbour, and Jesus said he was ‘not far from the kingdom of God’. Do we try to cut through the undergrowth to follow the two loves, of God and our neighbour? Keeping God at the centre of our lives is surely the answer to the challenge of responding to God. Of course we fail over and again, but if the intention to love is there, Jesus smiles at us, saying, “you, too, are close to God’s kingdom.”
I’d like to end with some word from the great Rabbi Lionel Blue:
“Love makes the world go round, and the world hereafter too. Falling in love with God can be very similar to falling in love with a human being. You bump into each other one day, or trip over each other. You meet at a boring formal occasion, like the wedding service of a distant relation – and suddenly you know you want to meet again. Or you realize with wonder that the old familiar God you met years ago in Sunday school classes is alive and attractive (not very different from the boy or girl next door in class B movies). Or you start off by having values and ﬁnd one day that they are alive. You can speak to them, they can answer back, and you can be in love with them as well as love them. They acquire a human face. If you are hooked, you start haunting the place where you ﬁrst met. You want to go to that particular church or synagogue and no other. It takes time to realize that God is everywhere.