A Rabbi and a Roman Catholic Priest were sitting next to each other at an Inter-faith event. When dinner was served someone thoughtlessly had placed a slab of ham in the Rabbi's plate. The Rabbi did not protest but simply proceeded to eat other things his faith and physician permitted. The Roman Catholic padre leaned over in the direction of the Rabbi and said. "Rabbi Cohen, you and I know that the dietary laws from the Old Testament were developed at a time when pork meat was indeed dangerous due to lack of refrigeration and low heat in cooking. Of course trychinosis was rampant and your ancestors in the faith were right in prohibiting eating pork in order to save the lives of many Israelites. Those days are gone, pork is safe and there is no reason to cling to outmoded ancient practices. When will you eat your first mouthful of ham, Rabbi Cohen?" The Rabbi paused briefly and then responded, "at your wedding, Father Maguire, at your wedding"
The Scriptures for this Sunday show us the development of the religion which the religion that nurtured Jesus, from rigid adherence to commandments, to the commitment to serve God above all else and neighbor as oneself. Exodus 20 is one of the two places where we find the Ten Commandments given through Moses to the budding Israelite nation. These commandments are a good first step in helping to create a new community out of a group of slaves that were simply used to obeying blindly the orders of their masters. The law is the first legal covenant between God and the people of Israel built on the relation between the liberating God and the emancipated servants. The first commandment is different in Judaism and in Christianity. What we call the preamble "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" is not separated from "You shall have no other gods before me." It is almost as if God is saying "look how much I have done for you and how little you have to do for me" And the little that you have to do for me is going to help you create and sustain your new community".
But the people of Israel forgot the relation part, the commitment part and after a few years the commandments were separated from the commitments. So God sent the prophets of Israel to remind the people that God had not intended to replace the rule of lash with the rule of laws. That the community that the commandments made possible was sustained through a right relationship with God, through commitments.
The priestly class never liked the prophets. Priests enjoyed the ever multiplying commandments that they alone interpreted. The Ten Commandments had grown into 613 rules and regulations. Breaking any one of these required the payment of the right sacrifice and the performance of the correct ritual. Priests charged for both of these so the salvation of people became also good business. The prophets, precursors of our Lord Jesus Christ, denounced this unjust and unfair condition in no uncertain terms.
When Jesus came unto the scene he was nurtured far more by the prophetic tradition than by the priestly class. The early followers of the Risen Christ were impelled and compelled by texts emanating from the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, Amos and Ezekiel. The early apostles of Jesus, however, divided themselves between those who believed that a careful adherence to the law was essential to the new movement and those, like Paul, who believed that Christ had come to set us free from the bondage of the law. Having spent several of his years as a careful, nay, fastidious observer of the law as a Pharisee, he new that it was not in the adherence to commandments that salvation lies, but in the commitment to be a faithful follower of the Risen Lord. He knew how ridiculous it could become to keep on making laws to fit every activity we want to control. He also knew how the law sometimes serves to magnify, to blow out of proportion the negative things we do, calling more attention to sin than to salvation. So as he comes close to the end of the letter he is writing to the Romans he call for tolerance and understanding for those who disagree. Instead of creating more and more commandments he wants more commitment to one another and to the new Christian community in Rome. Do some people want to eat meat? Let them. Do they want to be vegetarian? Let them. Do they want to observe a certain day? So what. Do they want to honor their dead?
Where is the harm? Do you want to make new rules and then judge each other with those new rules? Watch out! There is only One Judge, One Lord, One God. The same One who gave the commandments and asks for our commitments, not for our blind obedience and not for our quarreling with each other about who obeys more laws than others.
Our relationship to God and to one another is beyond quantification and that is the point of the Gospel text in which Peter asks Jesus about the number of times we are supposed to forgive one another. This is not a problem that arose for Peter. It arose in the early community of the followers of Jesus and that is why Matthew has to write about it. Thank God for that because that is still happening in our church community and we need to remember our commitments more than our commandments.
Matthew places Peter in a good light. In other words he is also placing those members of his church who are willing to forgive a few times in a good light. Forgiving seven times was excellent from the perspective of a legalistic perspective. Seven is a mystical number, the days of the week, the seven windows to the world which God placed on our heads, our two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth.
Seven, however, was still legalistic. Jesus gives an answer that is not legalistic. Seventy times seven is not 490! It is an expression used to stretch the mind and the spirit of those who hear the answer. It is a call to community and commitment beyond commandments. Matthew goes on to solidify the point he is making by adding the parable in which a greatly indebted servant is dealt with compassionately by his master while he, in turn, deals legalistically and tyrannically with a fellow servant who owes him very little. We can hear in the background of this story the echo of the section of the Lord's prayer "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors". Community and commitments, not commandments.
Now, let us fast forward to the end of the Second Millennium of the Christian era. The followers of Jesus Christ who came to set us free from the bondage to the law, the admirers of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles who deftly defeated the Judaizers, the circumcision party, which wanted Christianity to be a small sect of Judaism confined and controlled by the laws of Moses. The believers of the God of Israel who came to set us free now turn against each other passing law, after law, to prohibit each other to this or that. Most of the major Protestant denominations, the section of Christianity which was born in rebellion against the control of laws and dogmas now multiply rules and regulations in a futile attempt to dictate to others how our common life is to be lived. Forgetting our commitments we are returning to commandments as a way of organizing our cultic and missional life. In our panicky reaction to loss of members and influence we, like Esau, are willing to trade the right of primogeniture of sound theology, and doctrine for the lukewarm dish of legislative imperialism.
I own a Book of Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church South of 1890. It is so small that it can fit in the inside pocket of my coat. The "legal" side of it is about half of the book and the other half contains rituals accepted by the Methodist Church. I keep this little book next to the most recent version of the same book, the 1996 edition of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is big, cumbersome and not to be carried around. It is also the book through which some of us wish to control others. Originally intended to order our community life it now threatens to destroy it. Like the ancient Israelites we too, and I don't mean just United Methodists but Christians in general, have forgotten our commitments and we have multiplied our commandments. Whether the issue is homosexuality or the care of the environment we have passed resolutions, created rules and mandated actions that have little to do with the announcement of God's incredible love for us. We have multiplied seventy times seven. We intend to put our fellow servants in some kind of jail forgetting the incredible debt that God has forgiven each one of us.
As you listen around the country you know what I am talking about. Presbyterians, Lutherans, United Methodists etc., etc., we are all involved in internecine battles where our books of order, by whatever name, threaten to supplant the Word of God as contained in Scripture.
As we return to our churches this September Sunday, a time when we used to rally back to church, let us rally back to the love which created our community of faith. Let us move, as God intended, from commandments to commitments.