Anyone who has a teenager – and all of us who were teenagers – know all about pushing and pulling against rules. There are the parental rules: What time is a fair curfew? The arbitrary societal rules: Why can I drive at 16, but not vote until 18?” As adults, during this pandemic, we have also pushed back against rules that felt arbitrary – lockdowns and masks, vaccine mandates. In many ways, this has led to a healthy debate about when rules ae necessary to limit individual choice for the greater good. In Ukraine, we see a terrible war caused by a country that broke the rules of good world order – invading a peaceful nation for selfish ends - and the rest of the world has wrestled with how to respond. Even in our own politics we see the fraying of rules when misinformation and conspiracy theories are knowingly spread as truth.
Of course, rules are complicated. For many centuries, the rule was that certain people – because of gender and race – had no say at all in making the rules. Rules were used to allow violence and sexual assault and murder, to take children from their loving parents, to erase cultures.
And so rules change and adapt and are discarded – people push back against them, and, hopefully, make better rules. And always the people making the rules must ask themselves: whom does the rule serve?
So it is quite remarkable that the rules offered to us in the Ten Commandments remain relevant and purposeful today. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet, don’t cheat on the people you love. Don’t be carefree with our own faith and beliefs. Be nice to your parents. Take a day off to think about God and your larger role in the world. These are good rules. They are woven deeply through our culture and our institutions.
But following them to the letter is not so easy. What is our duty to abusive parents? If a person kills to protect another, to defend his family, has he broken a commandment? If we divorce and remarry, do we commit adultery? But then along comes Jesus to give us this new commandment: the top of the pyramid, from which all the others flow: Love one another.
Jesus says: Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.
And suddenly, the other Ten Commandments are reframed; they become a supporting foundation for the ultimate goal: that we put love first.
Does that make life less complicated? It does not, unfortunately. But it does give us a firmer place to stand as we try to assess rules, and even the other commandments. Because behind love come other qualities: hope, kindness, forgiveness, patience, openness. And from there we can add nuance to the Ten Commandments.
How does love factor into the commandment around adultery? If it was meant to protect the weaker of the partners, to foster respect and consideration – how can that be a guide as couples go through a breakup? When someone steal or kills, what are the circumstances behind it – and how might we respond with love? Is stealing a loaf of bread the same as stealing money from the poor? Is killing in a war to protect your homeland, the same as murder for selfish gain? Viewed through love, those commandments don’t crumble away; they become more powerful, because they force us to consider the rules we make and the judgements we take to reinforce them. Are we acting from a place of hope, kindness, understanding? Are we acting with love?
One of my kids’ favourite books growing up was called The Lion in the Library. Some of you might know it. It is about a Lion who comes to listen to story time in the library, where the rule is that you have to be quiet. Not everyone loves having the lion there, but he becomes close to one of the librarians. One day she falls and breaks her arm, and the lion roars for help. He is kicked out of the library for breaking the rules. But everyone misses him, and they seek him out and bring him back. And, of course, the moral of the story is its last line: “Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules. Even in the library.”
By giving us this ultimate, endgame commandment, Jesus gave us this very important lesson: Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules: if we are acting, truly and faithfully, from a place of love. Now real-life rules are often more complicated than calling for help in a quiet place because a friend has fallen. But, how often, in fact, do we become rule-sticklers even when someone clearly needs our help, when that rule is causing harm? Too many times, as we well know, past and present.
What Jesus offers us with this commandment to love first, above all else, is both simplicity and complexity. The gospel requires that we challenge ourselves to see each individual situation on its own, to understand motivations and circumstances, to learn context and to be comfortable with nuance – that is what is complex; that is the intellectual journey of faith. But what is simple – what is divine - is the question to which we must always return: Am I responding with love? Amen.