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A Way of Life

An Address by Fr John Slater

19 October 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

In today’s Gospel reading, a lawyer asks Jesus, Which is the great commandment in the Law? Jesus replies, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. I want to point out that the man asking the question is a lawyer, and he asks Jesus about the law. But, of course, these words are translations from the Hebrew Bible and I would like to suggest that we might find a better translation.

The Hebrew word Torah has been translated as The Law - referring specifically to the Law of Moses or the first five books of our Old Testament. But the content of these books is largely a mixture of myth and legend, and probably very inaccurate history, as well as some elements that might be called laws. In fact, Torah is probably best translated as teaching or guidance; it defines a way of life.

A couple of weeks ago I watched an Open University television programme about religion. It included interviews with Jews and Christians, Muslims and Hindus, as well as followers of Transcendental Meditation. Except for the Christians, I think each group began by saying that theirs was not really a religion, but rather a way of life. This may be an attempt to say, In this country, religion may be regarded as out of date and out of touch, but we are different. But it is also, I think, a way of saying that Judaism, Islam and Hinduism are not just what happens on one holy day each week but rather influence and even control the whole of our daily lives. Of course, the same must also be true of Christianity though I don’t remember that the Christian speakers actually put it quite that way in the programme.

According to the New Testament, the first Christians were sometimes actually called Followers of the Way. They certainly didn’t think they had a religion for Sundays only; they had their beliefs and these implied an entire way of life. It may be that in this country the word religion has been debased and come to mean only certain sets of beliefs and actions narrowly defined as concerning some other spiritual realm rather than the world of our day to day existence. If that is so then we had better start demonstrating that Christianity is not so much a religion and more a way of life.

But at least let us get away from the idea that the heart of our religion is law. When you define religion as law, we all end up as men and women who have broken the law and we are told to look forward to a trial at the end of time when the books will be opened and all our deeds will be judged. Even as a metaphor I don’t much like such language. A much richer metaphor is that of the journey.

Instead of the language of breaking the law and facing judgement, we can see the journey as an allegory of our lives. Sometimes we have stayed on the right path; sometimes we have gone astray, perhaps by accident or perhaps by our own free choice. The important thing is to get back on the right path - for which we need not so much a set of laws but rather direction, guidance and teaching. Remember that in the story of the Good Samaritan, those who knew all the religious laws either could not or would not come to the wounded man’s help. It took a man outside the narrowly religious establishment to see that the wounded man needed understanding and healing rather than judgement.

In my most personal conversations with people about their faith, I have never found it helpful to use the language of the breaking of religious laws. How much better to ask, Where are you on your journey of life? Are you clear about where you are going or do you feel that perhaps you have lost your way? And no matter how badly things may seem to have gone, none of us has to wipe out the past and start again. We can only start from where we are on the road today. All our past life, success or failure, happy or tragic, is part of who we are and the raw material out of which our future will be forged. The goal of Christian living is not innocence - there is no going back to that - but maturity. The God revealed to us by Jesus Christ is not well described as a judge but rather as the loving Father who created us and who, in William Blake’s words, put us here on this earth to learn to bear the beams of love.
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