Deuteronomy 5:1-19; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Good morning. When I was in college, I was a member of a fraternity. One of my fraternity brothers was a guy named Frankie. Frankie was this little Italian guy from Queens and he was quite a character. One of Frankie’s best qualities is that he really, really likes people. That doesn’t mean that he won’t bust your chops from time to time, but once you know him, it’s easy to tell that Frankie likes you—or even loves you.
Frankie can connect with just about anyone, and for the most part, that’s a great thing. Guys like that helped to hold the house together in times of stress. But occasionally, Frankie’s ability to connect was something of a double-edged sword.
Every fall the incoming freshmen had the opportunity to check out all the fraternities on campus. This period was called rush, and at the end of the fraternity rush period, each house would extend invitations to the guys that they thought were a good fit for that fraternity. This is called the bid meeting—a bid is a formal invitation to join or pledge a fraternity.
Now remember, Frankie seemed to like everyone he met. That meant that at a bid meeting, he would argue that we should give a bid to just about every freshman who walked into our house, even if no one else had met a person, Frankie would say, “He’s a good guy.”
Frankie wasn’t the only person who would describe people that way, and he could usually explain why he thought someone was a “good guy.” But many of our other brothers were not as good at defining what made someone a “good guy.” It got to the point where we actually banned the words “good guy” from our bid meetings because the phrase was utterly useless.
I mean, everyone has a different definition of the word, good. Sometimes I wish we could ban the words “good person” from church! Instead of something vague and subjective, tell me something that invites a deeper conversation:
· Dorothy is so kind.
· Chris is so diligent and dedicated.
· Barbara is so dependable.
· Susan is such a faithful steward.
· Paul is so generous.
· Sam is so enthusiastic.
Those descriptions paint clearer pictures, but if I’m still not getting it, I can ask you to tell me a story about Dorothy’s kindness, or all the ways in which we depend on Barbara. Every kid in the youth group can tell you how enthusiastic Sam is. The only question you might have is, which Susan am I talking about?
I think there’s some kind of connection between our vague notions of what makes a “good person” and our shallow understanding of the Ten Commandments, in which we look at the commandments as a checklist of behaviors. In that shallow understanding, a “good person” is someone who goes to church, acts friendly, and doesn’t commit murder, adultery, or theft. That’s a pretty low bar. By that definition, most of us qualify as good people.
But honestly, there aren’t many voices calling out for more murder, theft, or adultery in our society. Nor did anyone in ancient Israel stand up and shout that murder, theft, or adultery were good things. Still, a little context is useful.
Remember, in ancient Israel, property was life. These were rules for the health and welfare of the entire community. Also, this was an honor culture. If I do something that harms you, you are compelled to seek vengeance against me.
If I steal some of your sheep or oxen, or worse, some of your land, then I inhibit your ability to provide for your family. If I did that to one of you, you would have to confront me, with violence if necessary. And if I died as a result of that dispute, a member of my family would be honor-bound to kill you or some other member of your family. It would start a cycle of violence that would be difficult to stop. That cycle can disrupt the entire community.
Adultery could also disrupt the community in ancient Israel. As I said last week, one of the most important things in that society was the orderly transfer of property from one generation to the next. If I have property and I commit adultery, I might produce an illegitimate son. That son might try to make a claim on my property, especially if he is older than my legitimate sons. Even though he doesn’t have a good claim to be my heir, that might not stop him from trying to murder my legitimate sons, which, again could kick off a cycle of violence that threatens the entire community.
We live in a very different society than ancient Israel. Murder still causes a great disruption to our society, but most of us are highly unlikely to commit murder. Adultery and theft are still awful things, but they don’t pose the same sort of threats to our community. So what’s the point of preaching a sermon on the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Commandments?
The short answer is, it’s not enough to say, “Well, I haven’t murdered anyone, stolen anything really valuable, and I’ve never cheated on my wife.” Following the law isn’t the same as practicing grace. To put it another way, you can still be a jerk even if you’ve never committed murder or adultery or stolen anything. And being a jerk definitely disrupts society.
Instead of giving us a series of “Thou shalt nots,” the Letter to the Hebrews expresses all of these commandments in a positive form—it tells us how a Christian community ought to live in harmony. It begins: “Let mutual love continue.” That’s community, folks. That’s how we’re all supposed to live, in a state of mutual love. All of the commandments function together to preserve harmony, to preserve a community in which we love one another.
Remember, love is an active verb. In Hebrew, the verb, to love, means to act on that love—it’s not just an abstract state of being. When we act in love, we create and nurture a community that acts in accordance with our reading this morning from Hebrews:
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured… Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have….
That’s what it looks like when we love all of our neighbors. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like.
Yet that’s not what our world or even our community looks like today. So how do we get there? How do we move into that reality and build the kingdom?
We have to change the focus and the tone; we have to constantly remind people of the love behind the rules, rather than focusing on how other people fail to live into them.
I was in a Bible study one time that was led by an Irish nun. She had a very interesting take on the Eighth Commandment. She said, “Thou shalt not steal… even a compliment.” She asserted that any time you fail to offer a compliment or any other act of kindness, you were stealing joy from the person to whom you ought to have delivered the compliment.
That’s a really challenging ethic to live into. The nun said that it was difficult for her, too. But it became easier with practice. The more compliments she gave, the more she realized other opportunities to offer compliments and many other acts of kindness.
It would be easy to say that she is a good person. It would be much more accurate to say that she’s assertively and intentionally kind. And by living into that, she’s working to build the kingdom of God.
In the same way, it would be easy to say that my friend Frankie is a good guy. It would be much more accurate to say that he is kind and generous with his time. Frankie took the time to get to know every guy in the house and he worked hard to be a friend to each and every brother—even if he did sometimes bust a guy’s chops.
So, I say to you, go and do likewise. Practice kindness, assertively and intentionally. At the same time, be sensitive to the needs and the dignity of the person who is to receive your kindness. Be generous with your time, so that you can learn what that person can hear and receive, before you offer the kindness. The look for more opportunities to share that love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that love is at the heart of God’s law, and the rules flow from our relationship with God! Go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Share the love and peace and joy of our Lord with your children and with the world! In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!