Who to thy tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times didst give the law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
But, here is what He said:
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:17-2o)."
The Law of Moses was separated into three kinds of law. These are the ceremonial, the civil and the moral. One of the best known sayings of the Jewish people has a double meaning: “The law of the land is the Law.” It means that in whatever land the Jewish people live, they must be law-abiding people. But, it also means that in the Holy Land, the land they call H’eretz Israel, the Law of the Land is the Torah, the Law given through Moses – that is, it was the Law of their country in antiquity.
The people of Israel, throughout the Old Testament period, and into the days of the Macabees, had only one national constitution, the Law of God. Therefore, it contains the civil code of the nation, complete with laws of criminal justice, public safety and so on (some of the practical wisdom of which we ignore to our peril. For example, in our Country a person may be convicted on the testimony of but one witness rather than two or three. Our way can lead to injustice. The Torah requires the testimony of at least two witnesses in order to convict the accused. One of the safety laws of the Torah required that every roof have a railing, desert roofs being flat, so that people could not fall off of buildings). Also, the Law of Moses had in it everything we would call a rubric. The commandments tell the people everything that they are to do regarding the worship of God, sacrifice, feasts, fasts, and the details about the Levitical priesthood. This we call the ceremonial portion of the Law.
It is in the Ten Commandments that the Moral Law first appears with absolute clarity. If you were taught properly for Confirmation, no matter how long ago it may have been, you should recall that the Ten Commandments are split into two parts. The first four teach us how to love God. 1) That we worship no other god, 2) that we make no idols to distract from worship of the true God, 3) that we do not abuse, that is take in vain, His Name, 4) that we keep holy the Sabbath, that is, the day of rest, as holy to the Lord. Then, the second part gives us six commandments about how to love our neighbor. 5) To honor our parents, 6) not to murder, 7) not to commit adultery, 8) not to steal, 9) not to bear false witness (that is, slander or libel), 10) and finally, not even to covet what belongs to our neighbor.
Part of the great wisdom of our Prayer Book is the Catechism that teaches us how the two great commandments summarize these ten. Furthermore, if we read the New Testament carefully, we see that these commandments are much deeper than they might appear. The commandment to honor one’s parents extends to the teaching that we are to have a respectful attitude to all proper authority (Romans 13:1f). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us that anger and hatred, and a lack of forgiveness, are all a violation of the commandment against murder; and that all sins against chastity, even if nothing more than the willful indulgence of "the lust of the eyes" (the kind our entertainment industry tries to cultivate), violate the true meaning of the commandment against adultery, whether by married or by single persons. When we get to the tenth commandment, against coveting, we learn that the entire concept of applying the meaning of the Law to the hidden attitudes of the heart was not a new idea to the Lord when He preached the Sermon on the Mount. He had centuries earlier revealed from Mount Sinai the same principle: The Law must be engraved on the heart.
The Law requires something that it cannot give, that it has no power to impart. It requires a heart that loves God and our neighbor. Furthermore, not simply that we love our neighbors in the plural. That way we could love only some of them, and say that we are fulfilling the commandment. But, the commandment is stated in the singular. “Love thy neighbor” teaches the same thing as those words of the Lord Jesus: “as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren," and conversely, “As ye have done it not unto one of the least of these my brethren” (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matt. 25:31-46). Charity, that is the highest kind of love, is not about how we treated mankind. It is about how we have treated, forgiven and come to the aid of the one, especially, perhaps, that one we simply do not like.
And, we learn something else, namely from Saint Paul writing to the Galatians:
“But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith (Gal. 3:22-24)."
When we really think about the Summary of the Law, we can be filled with either despair or hope. I know that I have never lived one day in which I have managed to love the Lord with all my heart, all my soul and all my mind. I know that never has the day gone by in which I have loved my neighbor as myself, at least not each one of my neighbors. I would like to be so holy, so filled with virtue. But, I am not.
Saint Paul called himself the chief of sinners. In fact, a genuine mark of a true saint is that he is very much aware of his sins, and of how far he falls short of God’s requirements. Even though he lives better than most people, even though he wants to please God and serve Him truly, even though he abstains from willful sin and repents sincerely of every sin into which he might have fallen, he never imagines that he has succeeded or become perfect. If the saints know themselves to be sinners, what about those of us who know that we are called to become saints, and yet know that we have not even gotten close? (For, make no mistake, a saint is exactly what each one of us is called to become.)
The commandments, even the list of negative commandments, that is, those that tell us what not to do, are summed up in the positive commandments, that is, what we are commanded to do. We are to love God, and we are to love our neighbor. That is the whole duty of man, as long as we understand that love means agape, or charity. It never rejoices in iniquity, but only in the truth, says St. Paul in the famous chapter of First Corinthians (chapter 13).
But, how do we come to hope, rather than despair, from these impossible requirements? The answer is what Saint Paul says, that we are brought to faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing can give me greater confidence in God’s mercy than the impossibility of fulfilling, by my own strength, these two Great Commandments we call the Summary of the Law. He knows our weakness, and does not turn away from us if we come to Him with repentance and faith. That is because He sees us in the Person of His Son, as in that wonderful phrase that is repeated constantly in Paul’s Epistles: “in Christ.” That is where we are, by baptism, by faith, by living in the Church with all of its sacraments that are real and powerful through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can grow into the love of God by heeding these words of Saint John, in that simple phrase: “We love him, because he first loved us (I John 4:19).” How did he first love us? As Saint Paul says, “God commends his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8).”
I cannot manufacture love for God, or for my neighbor, as such an endeavor is artificial. But, I can look at the cross of Jesus Christ. I can look at Him in His pain and agonies pouring out His soul unto death for me. As can you; for if you want to obtain this love for God and for your neighbor, you must look up at Jesus Christ on the cross pouring out His soul unto death for you. That is how the seed of charity is planted within your heart. And, it is by returning to the foot of that cross every day that the seed of charity grows and bears fruit unto eternal life. Realizing that He has died for you is the door of hope by which you can rejoice in His resurrection.
The very nature of what is required in these two great and impossible commandments can give either hope or despair. Because I see the mercy of God in Jesus Christ, I can understand the words in today’s Epistle reading:
“I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ: that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”