Sticking to essentials


I often demonstrate the evolution of biblical morality by simply checking labels in my students' shirts, blouses or sweaters. Since both Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 22 prohibit weaving garments from two different materials, those wearing anything made of 60 percent cotton and 40 percent polyester are sinne<%2>rs!<F255%0>

Of course, none of my students recall ever hearing about such a law. It makes no one's confessional top-ten list. Yet there it is, right smack in the middle of 612 other Torah regulations.

Its inclusion in such a prestigious collection forces us to admit that biblical morality isn't static. Each generation of believers understand what God wants them to do in a different way from the former generation.


This development in morality seems to be why both Moses and Jesus insist their communities first zero in on the most essential, unchangeable biblical regulation: "Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is one God, Yahweh alone. Therefore you shall love Yahweh, your God, with all your heart, and with all your souls, and with all your strength."

Nothing is more fundamental to faith than totally giving oneself to God. Along with Moses (Dt 6: 2-6), we believe the only way we'll ever "grow and prosper" is to dedicate ourselves completely to God. Yet, this essential, unchangeable regulation is the reason morality changes. When we ask how we concretely carry out this giving, we find it involves a moral evolution. We constantly discover different ways in which God wants us to demonstrate our generosity.

It would be terrific to be God, to have the attributes which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives to Jesus: "holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners, higher than the heavens" (Heb 7: 23-28). Whatever we'd do, we'd do once for all. We wouldn't have to repeat rote actions or discover new ones that God expects us to carry out. We'd be "perfect forever."

But none of us fits that divine category. At this point of our faith journey, we're just trying to find our way along God's road, identifying with the questioning scribe in Sunday's Gospel (Mk 12: 28-34) and carefully pondering Jesus' insightful response.

Like Moses, Jesus gives a straightforward, simple answer when the legal expert asks about ranking the 613 Torah regulations. He first quotes Deuteronomy but then immediately reminds him about a law in Leviticus 19 that demonstrates one's seriousness about loving God: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."


Jesus isn't the first or the last Jewish teacher to blend these two laws. His prophetic predecessors often did the same. Throughout Jewish history, someone is always trying to get people to return to the heart of their faith: love of God and love of neighbor.

Joining the two is a prerequisite for stepping into God's kingdom and for experiencing God working in our lives. That's why Jesus praises the scribe for believing this determined, dual love is "worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices." No religious rituals, practices or laws are more important than love. Anyone living out such a conviction can't be "far from God's kingdom."

Because our love of God is shown by our love of neighbor, moral laws will always evolve. Each generation discovers needs in others which former generations haven't noticed. For humans, no one action can always show love to everyone at every time and place.

Those who imitate Jesus are continually called to go beyond the comfortable, accepted ways of giving to others practiced in the past. They constantly deal with new insights, always understanding the deeper implications of their actions.

Once we learn which laws are essential, we'll know how and when to change the non-essentials.