Psalm 78:1-7, Romans 13:8-10 May 1, 2022
“Give ear, o my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.” The psalm we heard this morning is a teaching song, providing insight on how to live a life of faith. It echoes some of the wisdom writings of the Old Testament like the book of Proverbs. Psalm 78 is unusual in that it is addressed to the people and not as a prayer to God. It is the second longest psalm in the Bible with 72 verses!
The bulk of the psalm is a historical recounting of the life of the people of Israel, but the first section, which we read this morning, sets the stage for that history with a call to pass on the commandments of God and testimony to the works of God to the next generation. The ‘children yet to be’ need to be told who God is, what God has done, and what God expects of them. They need to be told that they can place their confidence in God. We find in this psalm just one example of a familiar theme wound through many books of the Hebrew Bible—follow the commandments of God, teach them to the next generation, for the commandments (or the law) bring life. Remember the teaching of Moses in Deuteronomy: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”
The idea of following God’s commands and teaching them to our children is not foreign in any way to Christians today. We sang these same words in our first hymn this morning: “With all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and might, O people love the Lord your God, the source of truth and light. At night or day, at home, away, together and apart, O children take these holy words and keep them in your heart. The Lord is God, the Lord alone!”
And we used words taken from the Shorter Catechism, found in our Book of Confessions, for our prayer of praise this morning: “Your Word found in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments directs us how we may glorify and enjoy you, and what duties you require of us. Your commands offer life to all who will love you with our hearts, our souls, our strength and our minds. Guide us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Amen.”
The commandments are an integral part of life for the faithful Jews in the first century, whether you are talking about the big 10 or looking at what we might call the umbrella commandment to love God with all that you are. When Paul writes to Christians in Rome, he acknowledges the value, the importance, the priority of the commandments, or the law. He lists 4 of the 10 commandments in his letter as examples of what he means when he says “law”. All of his readers knew the big 10 by heart. Then, following Jesus, Paul makes use of the second of the two umbrella commandments which Jesus said sum up the teaching of the law and the prophets: love God and love neighbor. He puts his own spin on it, however.
In the verses leading up to our text for this morning, he is giving advice about keeping up with what you owe to the government—basically, “pay your taxes!”. He extends his teaching to include any kinds of debts to others—perhaps in business deals—and even in the respect we owe and the honor we owe to others. In any of these realms of our life together, we are instructed by Paul to pay our debts. I am guessing he would not likely be a fan of the credit card concept we rely on so heavily today. According to Paul, the only debt we should have is our debt to our neighbor, the only thing we should owe is love toward our neighbor. That is because loving neighbor can never be completely paid up. When we love our neighbor today, we will still owe love to our neighbor tomorrow. We can’t cross “love my neighbor” off our “to do” list. It should always be there.
Paul goes on to say that loving neighbor does no harm (or anything bad, evil or wrong) to that neighbor. In his understanding, based on Jesus’ teaching, that loving neighbor is fulfilling the law.
So let’s talk a bit about loving neighbor this morning. The command is to love neighbor as we love ourselves. We really can’t love others well if we don’t love ourselves. You may have experienced a time of depression or loneliness or low self-esteem. I can remember being in that place and truly feeling that I had nothing to give to anyone else. I was regarding myself and my abilities very poorly, I was not making decisions or plans very well, and therefore I could not see that I had the ability to share with others. Surely you or someone you love can relate to being in that low place. It seems to me that the first step in living out this commandment is to love self, to care for ourselves, to get the help that we need when we are in a low place, and to put in place the practices that renew and rebuild. Love self, but not to the exclusion of others, not to the extent of becoming selfish with our time, our focus or our resources.
I remember the words of a frazzled mother in the B and O Railroad Museum a couple of weeks ago when we visited with our grandchildren. She was the lone adult in the group, had one child on her back and three children who were fairly active. They were in the lobby area, preparing to leave. She turned to the three scampering around her feet and said: “Come over here by me. Make space for other people. You are not the only people on the planet.” Most young children do start out assuming they are the only people in the world, the only ones with needs that must be met immediately. Just ask any parent of an infant. But part of our responsibility as parents and as a church family is to teach children how to live healthy lives, including teaching them to be aware of others, to make space for others, to remember that they are not the only people on the planet. Jesus and Paul were both clear: we need a healthy respect for ourselves. We do need to tend to our own mental and physical health, our own needs for learning and growing, our own goals in life. Unless we value ourselves, respect ourselves, love ourselves, we will be unable to effectively love neighbor.
Perhaps I have shared this story with you before, but some perhaps have not heard it. I share it again because it is one of the formative experiences in my life, cementing in my mind and heart what it means to love neighbor. I was probably 12 or so. I had 4 younger brothers, one still in diapers. My dad read in the paper about Frank Burgess, a man who had been wrongfully placed in a mental institution in southern Virginia for decades and was now being released. He did have a sister who lived elsewhere, but who had no ability to pick him up or house him. My parents talked about it and decided to arrange to collect Mr. Burgess and bring him to our house to live. Brother number three had to vacate his room and share with brother number four. Mr. Burgess became a part of our family for at least a year, maybe a little longer. He was kind of quirky, but wouldn’t we all be after that kind of life experience? He had very few teeth, and he liked to grind up his fresh vegetables. My parents bought a food grinder for him to use (if there were food processors in those days, we certainly did not have one). My dad mounted it with a vice onto the edge of the wooden picnic table on our screened in back porch. We used the table a lot for meals in the summer, and my dad had built it and painted it with a forest green top and benches and white supports to hold up the top and the benches. When you grind carrots and celery and peppers by hand, the veggies fall into a bowl, but they can splatter. Well, when Mr. Burgess did his grinding, they splattered. All up the side of the white part of the picnic table. I know it bothered my mom. She had to wipe it up, but some of it stained the table. She grumbled about it some but did not stop showing love to Mr. Burgess even when he made a mess. (I believe that happened in other areas of the home as well, but I can’t remember the specifics.) This was one way my parents chose to fulfill God’s law. You will choose other ways.
I guess loving neighbor can be messy at times. I guess loving neighbor calls for biting one’s lip at times. I guess loving neighbors requires extra effort and intention. I guess loving neighbor means we are not the only people on the planet. I guess we never finish loving our neighbor.
My family, love yourself so you can love your neighbor. Then you follow God’s umbrella law. Everything else fits under that umbrella. Let these words sink in as we sing the words from Deuteronomy & the words of Jesus: with response #62 in the hymnal.