Archive for the ‘Numbers 19’ Tag

“Everything Else Is Commentary.”–Hillel   1 comment

Above:  A Torah Scroll

Image Source = Merlin



Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.


Romans 2:1-11 (Revised English Bible):

You have no defence, then, whoever you may be, when you sit in judgement–for in judging others you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, are equally guilty.  We all know that God’s judgement on those who commit such crimes is just; and do you imagine–you that pass judgement on the guilty while committing the same crimes yourself–do you imagine that you, any more than they, will escape the judgement of God?  Or do you despise the the wealth of kindness and tolerance and patience, failing to see that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?  In the obstinate impenitence of your heart you are laying up for yourself a store of retribution against the day of retribution, when God’s just judgement will be revealed, and he will pay everyone for what he has done.  To those who pursue glory, honour, and immortality by steady persistence in well-doing, he will give eternal life; but the retribution of his wrath awaits those who are governed by selfish ambition, who refuse obedience to truth and take evil for their guide.  There will be affliction and distress for every human being who is a wrongdoer, for the Jew first and the Greek also; but for everyone who does right there will be glory, honour, and peace, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.  God has no favourites.

Psalm 62:1-9 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1  For God alone my soul in silence waits;

from him comes my salvation.

2  He alone is my rock and my salvation,

my stronghold, so that I shall not be greatly shaken.

3  How long will you assail me to crush me,

all of you together,

as if you were a leaning fence, a toppling wall?

4  They seek only to bring me down from my place of honor;

lies are their chief delight.

5  They bless with their lips,

but in their hearts they curse.

6  For God alone my soul in silence waits;

truly, my hope is in him.

7  He alone is my rock and my salvation,

my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

8  In God is my safety and my honor;

God is my strong rock and my refuge.

9  Put your trust in him always, O people,

pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

Luke 11:42-46 (Revised English Bible):

[Jesus continued,]

Alas for you Pharisees!  You pay tithes of mint and rue and every garden herb, but neglect justice and the love of God.  It is these you should have practised, without overlooking the others.

Alas for you Pharisees!  You love to have the chief seats in synagogues, and to be greeted respectfully in the street.

Alas, alas, you who are like unmarked graves, which people walk over unawares.

At this one of the lawyers said,

Teacher, when you say things like this you are insulting us too.

Jesus rejoined,

Alas for you lawyers also!  You load men with intolerable burdens, and will not lift a finger to lighten the load.


The Collect:

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Numbers 19:16 reads:

In the open, anyone who touches someone killed with a weapon or someone killed with a weapon or touches a human bone or a grave, is unclean for seven days.

This applied especially to those who did this accidentally.  This detail matters because Jesus refers to it in Luke 11:44, the verse about walking over an unmarked grave.  The Pharisees and their accompanying experts in the Law of Moses were bad influences even if they did not wake up each day plotting how to be bad influences, Jesus said.  They were certainly sincere, but they were sincerely wrong and destructive.

They were so because they became and remained lost in the details.  They had reduced morality to a checklist when it is more a matter of proper attitudes.  The details tend to fall into place when one has proper priorities.  If I say, for example, that I will endeavor, with the help of God, to do unto others as I would want them to do unto me, I do not need to carry a checklist of forbidden and acceptable actions.  ”Is it lawful?” is not a question on which I need to spend much time when love of my neighbor defines my actions.

This is a profoundly Jewish attitude.  The great Rabbi Hillel, who died when Jesus was a young man, once fielded a question from a scoffer who demanded a very brief summary of the Torah–one he could listen to in its entirely while standing on one foot.  Hillel’s replied with the Golden Rule, to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.  He continued,

Everything else is commentary.  Now, if you’re really interested, to and study the commentary.

It is vital that, when studying the commentary, one ought not forget the main idea, which is the Golden Rule.  One can be a wrongdoer while trying to do that which is moral.  I think of many of my Antebellum Southern forebears in the Christian faith, who used the Bible to defend chattel slavery, a dehumanizing institution.  Then, after the Civil War and through the Civil Rights Movement, many professing Christians used many old pro-slavery arguments to support de jure segregation.  They looked at the details–the commentary–but did not stay focused on the main idea, the Golden Rule.  The commentary contains many useful ideas about how to observe the Golden Rule, but one can pervert and twist the commentary and contradict the Golden Rule easily and without trying to do so.

Sometimes our cultural, subcultural, and religious programming blinds us to our sins.  Other times we blind ourselves to our sins out of selfish interests.  Yet the guiding principle, which is the Golden Rule, remains clear and succinct.  Why are so many of us so confused so much of the time?

Yet, as James 1:27 reads,

A pure and faultless religion in the sight of God the Father is this:  to look after orphans and widows in trouble and to keep oneself untarnished by the world.

This is all the checklist I need.  ”Is it lawful?” If it cares effectively for the vulnerable, it is.  If not, it is not.  If it values people more than possessions and other forms of wealth, it is lawful.  If it does not, it is not.  As Saint Laurence of Rome understood well, the poor are treasure of the Church.








Adapted from this post:


A Living Power Among You Who Believe It   1 comment

Above: Paul Writing His Epistles (1500s)


1 Thessalonians 2:9-13 (The Jerusalem Bible):

Let me remind you, brothers, how hard we used to work, slaving night and day so as not to be a burden on any one of you while we were proclaiming God’s Good News to you.  You are witnesses, and so is God, that our treatment of you, since you became believers, has been impeccably right and fair.  You can remember how we treated every one of you as a father treats his children, teaching you what was right, encouraging you and appealing to you to live a life worthy of God, who is calling you to share the glory of his kingdom.

Another reason why we constantly thank God for you is that as soon as you heard the message that we brought you as God’s message, you accepted it for what it really is, God’s message and not some human thinking; and it is still a living power among you who believe it.

Psalm 126 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,

then were we like those who dream.

2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter,

and our tongue with shouts of joy.

3 Then they said among the nations,

“The LORD has done great things for them.”

The LORD has done great things for us,

and we are glad indeed.

5 Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

like the watercourses of the Negev.

6 Those who sowed with tears

will reap with songs of joy.

7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed,

will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Matthew 23:27-32 (The Jerusalem Bible):

[Jesus continued,]

Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You who are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of corruption.  In the same way you appear to people from the outside like honest men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You who build the sepulchres of the prophets and decorate the tombs of holy men, saying, ‘We would never have joined in shedding the blood of the prophets, had we lived in our fathers’ day.’  So!  Your own evidence tells against you!  You are the sons of those who murdered the prophets!  Very well then, finish off the work that your fathers began.


The Collect:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Contact with a corpse made one ritually unclean (Numbers 19:16).  So imagine that it is the month of Adar, and that you, O reader, are a pilgrim in Jesus’ day traveling to Jerusalem for the Passover.  You might become ritually unclean, and therefore ineligible to celebrate Passover, if you come into contact with a roadside tomb.  Fortunately for you, people have whitewashed the tombs in advance, so they will stand out, and pilgrims will not become ritually unclean by accident.

This is the reference to whitewashed tombs in Matthew 23.  But Jesus says that hypocritical professional religious people who lay needless burdens on the faithful are the whitewashed tombs; the scribes and Pharisees are themselves unclean.  How is that for a strong condemnation, one that hits home?  And these scribes and Pharisees are the spiritual heirs of those who have persecuted and killed prophets of God.  At this point in Matthew Jesus is nearing his own death, in which professional religious people were complicit.  (But let us not let the Romans off the hook, for the Procurator authorized the execution and soldiers carried it out.)

This day’s reading from 1 Thessalonians begins with Paul defending himself against unfounded criticisms.  Why else would he have pointed to his work ethic and his treatment of others?  Here we have an example of an old truth:  Whatever you do, somebody is likely to criticize you.  But the part of the reading that attracts my attention is verse 13:  God’s message is a living power among those who believe it.  Belief is trust; it indicates an influence in how one lives.  So belief becomes evident in actions.

The fault of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus criticized was that their belief was self-serving.  It made them look good to themselves and many others, but it was a disguise for spiritual rot.  Jesus calls us not to be tombs or spiritual memorials, but living testimonies to him.  Once in a while we might have to say something, but our actions ought to do most of the talking.

The aspect of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity that bothers me most is its preoccupation with individual salvation at the expense of the well-being of one’s community and society.  I have had conversations with people possessed of this spiritual understanding.  Many of them do not care if the world burns; they have Jesus.  (Someone expressed this sentiment to me a few years ago, without embarrassment.)  According to this point of view, social justice can take a back seat as long as a man’s hair is not too long, a woman’s skirt is not too short, and someone is learning that he or she will go to Hell unless he or she comes to Jesus.  Without dismissing the necessity of Jesus (I am a Christian.), I prefer a holistic gospel.  It is pointless to cure one person of spiritual sickness and not care about societal ills.  Indeed, we humans are not separate from our societies.  And love of God is more effective than fear of damnation in drawing one into a spiritually healthy relationship with God.

Disclaimer, for the sake of accuracy:  Many evangelical Christians are quite concerned about social justice and responsible ecology.  I applaud them.  Unfortunately, some of their co-religionists criticize them for the breadth of their concerns.

May we–you and I–exhibit the living power of God to all, so that all who seek it and cross paths with us will see it working within us.  And, to borrow a line from St. Francis of Assisi, may we preach the gospel at all times, using words when necessary.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.






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