On New Year’s Day 1954 in Dallas, Texas the Alabama Crimson Tide faced the Rice Owls in the 18th annual Cotton Bowl. In the second quarter of what was a close game, Rice was leading 7-6. However, Alabama being led by its star quarterback Bart Starr was driving deep into Rice territory. Rice halted the Tide’s drive by recovering a fumble at the Rice 10 yard line. After an offside penalty, the Owl offense went to work from the 5 yard line.
The next play is the most memorable play from the game, and is arguably one of the most thoroughly discussed plays in the history of college football. Running from the T-formation, Rice tail back, Dickey Moegle received the ball near his own goal line in a sweep around the right end. His lead blockers did a fantastic job, opening up a lane down the sideline. Being a speedster, Moegle raced down the sideline untouched, on his way to an apparent record breaking ninety-five yard touchdown run.
What Moegle did not see was that Alabama’s team captain, Tommy Lewis had an angle on him Lewis lowered his head and to everyone’s surprise tackled Moegle at the 45 yard line of Alabama. As Moegle lay on the field with the breath knocked out of him, the stadium grew silent, and the officials huddled on the field. The referee then broke from their huddle and awarded Moegle and Rice with a touchdown.
Rules and laws are amazing things; and at times it is like they are alive. They constantly need to be reinterpreted for each generation, as situations change. The rules and laws do not change, but the circumstances do. If this were not true, there would be very little for appeals courts or supreme courts to do.
There are some 613 laws recorded in the Old Testament – the job of the scribes and Pharisees was to interpret them for the people. Surrounding the laws recorded in scripture, the Pharisees had developed an oral tradition of law designed to assist the Jewish people in keeping the commandments and laws that God had given.
We are all familiar with the commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8) It was this law more than another that caused clashed between Jesus and the Pharisees. With their oral tradition the Pharisees had developed laws that governed what constituted work and what did not. They had rules about what a tailor could do with a needle on the Sabbath, and how far one can walk on the Sabbath. As times have changed, so have the interpretations of the law. How far you can you drive a car on the Sabbath? How far can you fly on the Sabbath? Perhaps someday they will have to interpret the commandment to determine how far you can be teleported on the Sabbath.
It is the same in sports. Rules are constantly evolving and changing to fit the intent of the game. The primary rule in any sport is that players should behave in a sportsman like manner. In the early days of football there were no face masks attached to helmets, so no one was ever penalized for grabbing one. Once face masks became part of the game, it became obvious that grabbing one was unsportsmanlike, so a new rule came into being.
Let us go back to the 1954 Cotton Bowl for a moment. There is something I neglected to tell you about Tommy Lewis’ tackle of tailback Dickey Moegle. Moegle did not see Lewis coming, because Lewis came off of the bench to make the tackle. He darted past his coach, not even taking time to put on his helmet and tacked Moegle. It stunned everyone, because no one had ever done such a thing. There was no rule to cover someone coming off of the bench to make a tackle. After the officials conferred with one another, the referee awarded a touchdown to Rice and Dickey Moegle. That summer the NCAA made the ruling of the officials the rule that stands to this day.
In our gospel text today we learn that the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus with a trick question regarding the law. They hoped that Jesus would say something to discredit himself. So one of the experts in the law asked Jesus a question that seems innocent enough . What is the greatest commandment? It was a question that many rabbis debated; for to say what the greatest law is one would have to give a summation of all of the law. With such a large corpus of continually evolving law, this was not an easy endeavor.
Undoubtedly the most famous of rabbi’s in the tradition of the Pharisees was Rabbi Hillel (the Elder) who died when Jesus was about 6 years old. The story that is recorded of his part in this debate is that a gentile came to him and said, “Tell me the whole meaning of the law while I am standing on one leg.” The great rabbi answered, “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary, go and learn.” While Rabbi Hillel’s answer is very much akin to Jesus’ “Golden Rule,” it is not nearly as inclusive as Jesus’ summation of the law.
With all due respect to the great rabbi, Jesus’ answer is much more detailed and thorough that Hillel’s in that it includes both tablets of the law. Traditionally the first tablet of the law deals with our relationship with God. Here Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5, which is traditionally called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” It is the first prayer that a Jewish child learns, the one most frequently prayed and the last one he or she will pray. The second tablet deals with our relationships with each other. Here Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18b “love your neighbor as yourself…”
It is obvious that the commonality that lies behind both tablets of the law is the word “love.” Is that the first word that comes to you mind when you think of the law? Probably not… but that is God’s intent in giving the law. God’s law oozes love.
Think for just a moment about the law of God…
I can have no other gods before our God… I can refrain from taking the name of the Lord God in Vain… I can remember the Sabbath and even keep it holy… and never love God at all. I can honor my parents… I can refrain from stealing… I can keep from killing you… I can keep from bearing false witness against you … I can refrain from committing adultery and I might even be able to keep from coveting things that belong to my neighbor. Amazingly, I could do all of these things without loving anyone! However, this was not the intent of God. God has no desire for us to live like automatronic robots, following a list of do’s and don’ts.
In Jeremiah 31:33 we hear the voice of God say: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” As Christians the Holy Spirit of God is within us. We have God’s laws in our minds and they are written on our hearts. That same Spirit allows us to love others with the love of God.
THERE MUST BE LOVE…
In his first epistle St. John writes, “If anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. (1 John 2:5) God’s law and God’s love go hand in hand. God’s love is made manifest in our lives when we live in accordance with his will. “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light…” (I John 2:9-10) Love of God and love of neighbor is the summation and the fulfillment of the law.
Several years ago I was working with a young couple in pre-marriage counseling. We finally got to the part where we were planning the service. I asked about favorite scriptures readings. The young lady said she did not have a favorite scripture, but there is a poem that she would like to have read. I informed her that we would need to see the poem first, and asked if she knew the author or title of the poem. She could not remember it, but knew that it had to do with love. After several more questions we discovered that the poem she had in mind was not a poem at all, but rather I Corinthians 13.
Lets us close with that scripture, for it lets us know how important love really is:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Love….It’s a law we can live with. AMEN
Photo – The Shema in Hebrew