The Old Testament Law contains 613 individual commandments. The majority of these are negative: “Thou shalt not” do such or so. These commandments prohibit activities ranging from coveting your neighbor’s cow to wearing pants made from two different materials. The remaining commandments are positive: “Thou shalt.” These order adherents to perform in determined ways and means.
Such a corpus of legal code is incredibly lengthy. Yet, it’s just the beginning. The oral tradition that supplements the Law (acting as commentary and explanation) is also extensive. Translated into English, it is a multi-volume set of more than seven thousand pages. For perspective, the largest dictionary at the local library has only – only – about fifteen hundred pages.
So it’s no surprise that Jesus was once asked this pertinent question: “Which is the most important commandment in the Law?” The questioner was looking for Jesus to throw him a bone. With so much material to sift through, where should obedience begin?
Jesus’ answer was legendary: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind,” he said. “This is the first and greatest commandment.” He then added, “The second most important is similar: Love your neighbor as much as you love yourself.” This caused Augustine to say later, “Love God and do whatever you please. For the soul trained in love will do nothing to offend the Beloved.” If only practical faith could stay on this level of holy simplicity.
Christians are a verbose group. We always have something to say, prove, defend, attack, clarify, protect, or explain. As if the massive religious codex that came before us is not enough; as if centuries of creeds, confessions, and commentaries haven’t rounded out the picture, yet; as if elaborate statements of faith will improve upon our Founder’s humble words.
In the practice of our faith, complication and baggage just seem to naturally collect like barnacles attaching themselves to a ship. It requires vigilance – the closest and most careful attention – to keep faith concentrated along the lines of which Jesus spoke. To do otherwise, to let faith go where it will, seems to lead to more words, more demands and commands, and more impediments to actually practicing the way of Christ.
The writer of Hebrews understood how complication accumulates. He said: “Let us strip off anything that slows us down or holds us back, especially those things that wrap themselves so tightly around our feet and trip us up; and fixing our eyes on Jesus, let us run with patience the particular race set before us.”
I like the personal story told by Jim Wallis when he was a teenager. Young Jim picked up a girlfriend to take to a movie, an act strictly forbidden in the church culture of his youth. See, he was reared as a Plymouth Brethren (They make Lutherans look like Unitarians, by the way). Everything was wrong – everything. If something was the least bit stimulating or did not directly and sufficiently honor Jesus, it was considered a sin, and movie-going was one of their many prohibitions.
As Jim and his date prepared to leave the house, the girl’s father stood in the doorway blocking their exit. He said to the couple, tears in his eyes, “If you go to this film, you’ll be trampling on everything that we’ve taught you to believe.” While the Plymouth Brethren shaming was over the top, the man’s conviction is honorable, in a curious sort of way. He was begging those he loved to stay true to the path.
I have similar convictions when it comes to simplicity. Thus, I have lost count of the times over the years when people wanted “more” – more words, more dogma, more doctrine, more rules, more command and control. At such times, I firmly grip the doorframe and say, “No, let’s keep it simple.”
If we can learn to love God and love our neighbors (No easy task), it will be enough. It will be more than enough; for “shattering and disarming simplicity,” said the great C.S. Lewis, “is the real answer.”