On hot summer evenings at Lackland Air Force Base, when we basic trainees were granted a rare night off, we’d adjourn to a small patio that had vending machines and bitch about how tough it was.
It wasn’t really all that tough because the Air Force was reluctant to send out-of-shape young adults to march in the 100 degree Texas heat (we heard there had been fatalities), so we spent many days in air conditioned classrooms memorizing Air Force esoterica. But we thought we were working our asses off, at least compared to the leisurely days of our bygone civilian lives, and we loved the patio breaks. We could sit on hard benches, smoke Luckies, and suck back Dr. Peppers while keeping a wary eye out for psychotic sergeants.
This was in 1964. The Bay of Tonkin incident had happened weeks earlier and, although none of us knew this would trigger a massive U.S. troop surge in Vietnam, we were all wary about the future. We’d smoke as many cigarettes as we could in the time allotted and talk about stuff we thought was important: whether we’d get a pass into San Antonio, whether Sergeant Ellefson was certifiably nuts, whether our girlfriends were thinking about us, whether we’d survive the dreaded basic training obstacle course, or whether we’d be posted to Southern California or to some deadly rice paddy a million miles from home.
We even talked theology. One night I sat smoking with a basic trainee from El Paso while he patiently explained why Catholicism was superior to my religion. My dog tags said I was United Church of Christ, based on a guess I made to my recruiter because my home church was the United Church of Morrisville, N.Y., but I had little idea what the UCC was.
The intense young Texan on the patio assured me his church was the true church because it generated real miracles, including the appearance of the Virgin at Fatima and the inexplicable bloody tears that trickle down the alabaster cheeks of certain saints.
“These things give me such an oomph in my faith,” he said, and all I could do is nod vacuously because my church was not big on visitations or dubious phenomena. The young man (whose name I never knew) did express regret that his church wanted him to remain a virgin until he married and he wasn’t allowed to masturbate. “But wet dreams are not a sin because they are involuntary and I do look forward to those wet dreams,” he said. I nodded realizing we had some common ground and watched as he took a deep drag on his cigarette. He smiled but, unexpectedly, his face darkened.
“The ten commandments,” he whispered. “I’ve broken eight of then.”
I watched him mutely as a sadness crept across his face. I was 18, so it never occurred to me to doubt that a boy so young could be such an accomplished sinner.
“Which ones?” I asked.
He shrugged and looked away.
“Did you kill someone?”
He shook his head adamantly. I tried to remember the other nine commandments. Swearing, lying, having sex, stealing. What else? Not going to church? Worshipping Zeus? Wasn’t there something about coveting your neighbor’s ass, which we used to snicker about in Sunday school? But what was coveting?
We sat in silence. Soon the break would be over and we’d have to retreat to our sweltering barracks for another sleepless night.
I cleared my throat. “What ones didn’t you break, then?”
He shook his head as if he didn’t understand the question, but his mood brightened abruptly again. “Hey,” he said, smiling. “Time’s up. Here comes the T.I.” I looked up as the sergeant (a “technical instructor” in Air Force nomenclature) strutted onto the patio pointing to his watch. Still smiling, the young man winked at me and waved. “God bless you,” he said cheerfully. He was assigned to another barracks and I don’t recall ever seeing him again. I wish I had gotten his name so I could Google him to see if he ever became governor of Texas or a shopping mall sniper or, perhaps, a monsignor or bishop. But he disappeared into the night, and now I wonder if he’d ever found the time to break the other two commandments, whichever they were.
These ancient memories come to mind because I've been reading Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, published in 1529 for the training of children. Luther summarized all essential theology into the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the Office of the Keys and Confession and the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Small Catechism leaves out a whole lot of bible, and the radical reductionism makes me think of a cartoon showing two monks laboring at their calligraphy over two ornately designed bible broadsheets. One monk turns to the other and says with a smirk, “Someone is going to get a break. I’ve left out a couple of commandments.”
As succinct as it is, the Small Catechism is still a lot to chew on, beginning with the ten commandments themselves. When you get to my age, you can’t read the commandments without reflecting on the ones you’ve broken, and how often. Have I worshipped idols? Possibly. Have I disrespected God’s name? Have I misused the Sabbath? Have I stolen? Have I disrespected my parents? Have I lusted – well, let’s stop there.
Sometimes it does seem the law and the commandments are too darn much. This notion was dramatized by the rabbinic sage Mel Brooks, who in his History of the World Part I included a scene of Moses struggling to carry three stone tablets down the mountain. As Moses approaches the crowd, he intones, “The Lord God has given unto me these fifteen …” But one of the heavy tablets slips out of his grasp and falls to the ground in a hundred pieces. Moses thinks quickly: “…these TEN commandments.”
It’s entertaining to speculate what those additional five commandments may have been, but it’s not really necessary. Once the basic ten became a part of Jewish law, they began to multiply like sea monkeys in water. Leaf through your bibles, through Leviticus, through Deuteronomy, through Numbers and beyond, to see what happened. The original ten commandments were annotated, expanded and commented on sixty-fold. Oy vey. I’m wondering how morose my friend at the Texas patio would have been had he been moved to confess, “I’ve violated 585 of the 610 laws in the Pentateuch.”
And well he could have done so. Who can possibly remember all the laws of the bible?
Consider just a handful, arbitrarily chosen from Deuteronomy 22:
You shall not watch your neighbour’s ox or sheep straying away and ignore them; you shall take them back to their owner. If the owner does not reside near you or you do not know who the owner is, you shall bring it to your own house, and it shall remain with you until the owner claims it; then you shall return it. You shall do the same with a neighbour’s donkey; you shall do the same with a neighbour’s garment; and you shall do the same with anything else that your neighbour loses and you find. You may not withhold your help. You shall not see your neighbour’s donkey or ox fallen on the road and ignore it; you shall help to lift it up. If you come on a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs, with the mother sitting on the fledglings or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. Let the mother go, taking only the young for yourself, in order that it may go well with you and you may live long.When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof; otherwise you might have blood-guilt on your house, if anyone should fall from it. You shall not sow your vineyard with a second kind of seed, or the whole yield will have to be forfeited, both the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard itself. You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together. You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together. You shall make tassels on the four corners of the cloak with which you cover yourself.And so forth.
The original ten commandments are difficult enough to interpret. The weight of 600 biblical laws is so burdensome most people think they have only one choice: to be crushed beneath them, or stop reading them.
As I was reading though the Pentateuch this week, I remembered something I had read in my youth, an article in Mad magazine. Mad, also a product of rabbinic insight and dead-on humor, noted that President Eisenhower had a tendency to ramble, obfuscate and puzzle the public with musings and non sequiturs. The President probably did this deliberately, as his press secretary, James Haggerty, suspected. Prior to a press conference, Haggerty warned the President that a number of issues were sensitive and he could not afford to make a gaffe. “Don’t worry, Jim,” Eisenhower said. “I’ll just confuse them.” And on many occasions, he did just that.
Mad magazine’s solution was simple: Hire the most laconic and taciturn man in America to serve as an interpreter for the most circumlocuitous president. Their candidate: Gary Cooper. During each press conference, the magazine suggested, after Eisenhower finished speaking, Coop would go to the mike and say, “Ike says, ‘Yup.’” And if the rambling utterance appeared to head in a different direction, Coop would distill it again: “Ike says, ‘Nope.’”
How nice it would be, we say to ourselves, if we had a similar device to help us interpret all the laws and the prophets going back five millennia.
Thankfully, the device is already in our possession – in the words of Jesus.
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? ’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:34-40)You don’t have to be an ecclesiastical lawyer to realize how complicated biblical law can be. The very complexity of the law has led to wide misunderstandings and dangerous misinterpretations. Over the centuries, good Christians have used the law to start wars, burn each other at stakes, trade in slaves, commit genocide on cultures that were considered inferior, relegate women and girls to the status of property, and despise others whose languages, complexions, religions, or sexual orientations are different from ours. All in the name of God’s law.
But lest we be confused, Jesus offers a clarifying note: “God says, ‘Nope.’”
All the law and the prophets can be distilled into two simple sentences, Jesus declares:
Love your neighbor.
In the final analysis, it may well be that each of us has broken one or four of the ten commandments. And it goes without saying that the Decalogue is one of the most important documents to emerge from human history, because these commandments constitute the first time basic rules of conduct and morality were written down.
But it would be a shame to follow our ancestors into the maze of confusion that the law became.
Love God. Love your neighbor.
Jesus has shown us the way through the maze, in five unforgettable words.
God grant that we discover the secret of living them. Despite its daunting profundity, the secret can be stated even more simply than in Luther’s Small Catechism.
When God says love everyone, don’t try to figure it out. Just say “yup.”