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by Tim O'Hearn

Everyone likes it simple. The fewer the rules, the better. When I was in high school I participated in my only foray into the political arena. I was the press secretary for an organization called “Students for a Constitutional Convention.” At the time, New Mexico’s constitution had grown large and cumbersome because a lot of what should have been separate laws had been added as amendments to the state constitution. Our purpose was to call upon the legislature to call a convention to write a new, simpler constitution. After all, the United States Constitution consisted of only 4,453 words (including signatures), not counting the few amendments thereto; whereas the state constitution had grown to a volume of hundreds of pages. (We were successful in getting a new, shorter constitution written for the state.)

On 19 November 1863, a ceremony was held to dedicate the new cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where many who died in a three-day battle four months prior were buried. The principal speaker at that ceremony was one of the most famous orators of the day, EdwardFollowing God pretty well covers a man from head to toe. Everett. He spoke, as was the custom, for almost two hours, in a speech consisting of approximately 13,607 words. Few people, even those living shortly thereafter, remember what he said. He was followed by the President of the United States, Mr. Abraham Lincoln, who spoke just a few minutes in what, at approximately 268 words, is one of the most famous speeches in history.

In the same way, people want the “Reader’s Digest” version of God’s commandments. People asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” (Mk 12:28) They were following an established history of trying to reduce the basic principles of God’s law down to one statement.

Rabbi Simlai said, "Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, 365 negative commandments, answering to the number of the days of the year, and 248 positive commandments, answering to the number of a man's members. Then David came and reduced them to eleven [Psalm 15]. Then came Isaiah, and reduced them to six [Isaiah 33.15]. Then came Micah, and reduced them to three [Micah 6.8]. Then Isaiah came again, and reduced them to two, as it is said, 'Keep ye judgment and do righteousness.' Then came Amos, and reduced them to one, as it is said, 'Seek me and live.' Or one may say, then came Habakkuk [2.4], and reduced them to one, as it is said, 'The righteous shall live by his faith.'" (Talmud, Makkot 23b-24a)

We don’t need to look at all 613 mitzvot (commands), especially since even the rabbis cannot agree on all of them; just that there are 613. We don’t even need to look at David’s eleven in detail, although we can state what they are. After listing David’s eleven basic principles, we may, however, look at those other reductions mentioned by Rabbi Simlai. Psalm 15, as mentioned, reads:

LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the LORD. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved.

Six commands

He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil. (Isa 33:15)

Isaiah lists six actions involved in following God. Five of those six involve body parts; the other involves the will. The feet, hands, mouth, ears, and eyes, and even the mind. That pretty well covers a man from head to toe.

In English it seems the first two are pretty much the same—walk righteously and speak uprightly. In truth they are quite similar. Isaiah recognized a difference, however. A man is to walk righteously, which may also be translated justly. This is a word that is also used to mean charity, but obligatory rather than voluntary giving. Walking in the right, just, and caring way is important to dwelling on high. But how does that differ from speaking uprightly? In that phrase, the adverb comes from a word meaning level or even. Justice should be administered evenly, but it is used rather to describe speech. While one is to walk in justice, his speech should be measured and balanced. Perhaps these two phrases equate to the old saying, “walk the walk and talk the talk.” What we teach should be the same as how we live. Jesus warned that some of the Pharisees did not live by this rule. “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.” (Matt 23:3)

The next two are also very similar. Despising gain through oppression and keeping one’s hands from bribes relate to gaining wealth at the expense of others. Gain well gotten and well used is valuable. Obtaining what you want through oppression or bribery is not. Samuel described the taking of bribes as blinding the eyes. (1 Sam 12:3) When a bribe enters, justice flees. One cannot walk justly while taking a bribe. Gaining money through oppression, though, is being just as blind to God. Perhaps the best-known example of this is found in 1 Kings 21. Ahab, King of Israel, desired a piece of land to which he had no right. To obtain the land, he had Naboth, its owner, killed. Then he could appropriate the land to the crown. And what was prophesied against Ahab because of this? Only that he would die, his descendants would die young, and his wife would be eaten by the dogs. Such is what is in store for the one who does not despise gain through oppression.

Finally, Isaiah says the one who would be lifted up should stop his ears from hearing of blood and his eyes from seeing evil. We have to be careful what we let into our minds, either by hearing or seeing. Stephen Sondheim wrote, in Into the Woods, “Careful the things you say, Children will listen. Careful the things you do, Children will see.” Well, that is true of more than just children. What we hear and see affects us more than we suspect. There is a reason violent video games and pornography are not rated for children’s consumption. Perhaps they should be removed from adults as well. Hearing of blood and seeing evil. It does affect us.

Three commands

“He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Mic 6:8)

Micah includes the justice/righteousness that Isaiah mentioned. He adds two other attributes, however. He says that justice must be tempered with mercy and humility. Everyone wants justice for the other person, but most would rather have mercy extended to them. God is a just God, but he is also merciful. He was able to meet the demands of justice, while extending mercy. Jesus became the sacrifice for sin, who had no sin, so that God could be merciful to those who accept him.

We want justice, tempered with mercy. But we also want it dispensed with humility. We don’t want a judge who is so proud that he does not identify with us. Such a judge is less likely to deal mercifully. Again we look to God through Jesus. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Jesus humbled himself, and so became one who could interpret us to the judge.

Two commands

“Keep ye judgment and do righteousness.” (Isa 56:1)

Isaiah had a thing about justice and righteousness. Perhaps that had to do with the society in which he lived. Nevertheless, he condenses his six things down to the first two that he had mentioned. After all, these are the foundations of how we deal with other people. Taking bribes and hearing of blood all hark back to these two principles. If we deal justly and charitably with others, we will get along better with others. More importantly, if we do so God will deal with us in the same way.

One command

“'Seek me and live.” (Amos 5:4)

“The righteous shall live by his faith." (Hab 2:4)

“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with allWhat we hear and see affects us more than we suspect. thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.” (Mk 12:30)

It seems the simpler we make things, the harder it gets. Reducing God’s will down to a single statement makes life harder, not easier. It is easy to keep 613 laws, especially when many of them deal with sacrifices that are no longer made. It is much harder to understand all the ramifications of a simple statement.

Seek God. Easy to say; not so easy to do. God is not far from us, but he is so vast that we cannot see the forest for the trees. Just when we think we have him pigeonholed, we find another aspect that takes us out of our comfort zone.

The just shall live by his trusting. But we find it hard to trust even God. We want to do things our way. Even little children go through a phase of “I do self.” We believe we will trust God with the big things, but if we don’t trust him with the little things, how can we do so with the big things? Trust is not easy.

And love? Loving God with everything we have is a big order. All our heart, soul, mind, and money? Wait a minute. I can handle the first three, but my money is mine, isn’t it? To seek what is best for God rather than ourselves goes against the concept of self-preservation. It is un-American. But that is what Jesus said was the distillation of the law.

We like things simple. But, oh, if it were really that simple.

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