Oh, how I love your Law!

Lessons of the Day: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8.

As a kid growing up on the Space Coast, we had regular opportunities to go to NASA with school trips, and because many of our parents worked in, for, or around NASA, we had more than a few behind-the-scenes tours. One of the tours that we had was of the vehicle assembly building. I remember the engineer giving us the tour making note of the railroad that brought the shuttles to the launch pad. “The gauge,” she said, “– the distance between rails – is 4 feet, 8.5 inches.” The strange number prompted the question from our teacher, “Why was 4 feet, 8.5 inches  used for the gauge?” “Because that’s how railroads are built in America,” the engineer responded.

“But why did Americans use 4 feet, 8.5 inches?”
“Because the English build them like that, and since the first rail lines in America were built by those trained in England, that’s what we use.”

Okay, so do you know why did the English use 4 feet, 8.5 inches.
“Well,” continued the engineer, “the first English railways were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and they were using the tools and jigs that had been used to build carts and covered wagons. The carts and wagons had that particularly odd wheel spacing because that was the space between ruts on English roads, ingrained through centuries of use.”

“And the ruts in the road,” continued my teacher, somewhat to our dismay.
“That comes from the Romans,” the engineer announced, “whose chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match in order to avoid destroying their wagon wheels. For the Romans, administrators that they were, wheel spacing was standardized according to an imperial measure.”

So, it turns out, the standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the specifications for an Roman war chariot. And the chariots were built just wide enough to accommodate the backsides of two horses.

At one level, this story is laughable – civilization’s advances and innovations based on the width of a horses backside. But what if we were to look at this story in a different way and saw in it a sort of wonder? Progress, as it were, is built upon the work and insights of others. Indeed, when NASA wheeled its latest rockets onto the launch pad rails, those rails are still the width of a two horse’s backsides. But what does that matter? Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern physics, once said, “If I have seen further, it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Indeed, we cannot do anything without reference to what has gone before. 

This is a similar sentiment that Paul reminds Timothy in our New Testament reading today.

“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

Today’s psalm, Psalm 119, speaks eloquently to this same thought. In 176 verses, the psalmist gives us 176 ways to say the same thing: “Happy are those who walk in the way of the Lord,” and “Oh, how I love your law!” and “All the day long, it is in my mind.” At 176 verses, it is the longest of all psalms. It consists of 22 eight-line stanzas, each stanza beginning with a sequential letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is an astonishing exercise in poetry.

Psalm 119 calls for the kind of continued learning Paul commends in his letter to Timothy. As a subject of our recitation and meditation, the psalm offers an entrance into a life of continued, endless prayer. Jesus tells a story in the lesson from today’s gospel underscoring our need to pray always and not lose heart. It is what Paul elsewhere commends: “pray without ceasing: (1 Thess. 5:17). And note the forceful summary by Jesus: for those chosen ones who pray day and night, justice shall come and come quickly. Are we even aware of this linkage? That our prayers are to be linked to justice? 

There is no better place to begin to pray always than with Psalm 119. The word “Torah” or one of its synonyms appears in almost every one of the 176 verses: Torah, law, decrees, precepts, statutes, commandments, ordinances. A rabbi was once asked, “What does a rabbi do?” He replied, “A rabbi is to lead God’s people to study Torah so that one day everyone will know Torah. On that day when everyone knows Torah, everyone will be a rabbi so that there will no longer be any need for rabbis.”

This is the dream of God as revealed to the prophet Jeremiah.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts”  (Jeremiah 31:33b). 

God wants us to become experts in loving the law and living the law. We in the church tend to suffer grave misunderstandings about this word law. These misunderstandings come from misreading of Paul, compounded by particular Christian theologians throughout the ages. The word “law” sounds static with the sole purpose of convicting us of sin and misdoings. But regular reading of all 176 verses of Psalm 119 would reveal a much richer range of meaning. The “law” is a treasure and a gift that makes one wise and happy. 

Torah is not a static set of rules, it is a dynamic map, a guide, and a pathway. It is the story of God with the people of Israel laid out in the first five books of the Bible. And, at its core, Psalm 119 (as a source of our daily prayer and meditation) directs us to endlessly reflect on that story.

On the one hand, we are invited to recall the stories of Israel, Jesus, and the early Church, remembering the experience and engages with our God. The story of Jesus, in particular, have been told and retold as reminders of fulfillment of ancient covenant and as revelations of the GOd of life and love. By receiving, telling, and sharing these stories the Church is able to find God still active in our lives and in the world. And thus the process of remembrance and connection keeps the stories (or traditions) of God alive and relevant today. 

On the other hand, we are invited to remember our own faith story, placing it alongside the story of God with Israel. This has been the Christian way since the beginning, connecting the present with the remembered past. Indeed, when any contemporary story connects appropriately with the story of God, there is revelation in which an ordinary moment of experience unveils the presence and activity of God. 

We are thus invited to find the place where our story might intersect with the story of the world, with our neighbor, with our co-worker, with our friends and family. 

Jesus spent much of his time discussing Torah with any and all persons he could. Jesus demonstrates that continual focus, discussion, and meditation on God’s law is what leads one in the way of life that is really life, and offers justice and hope for all people. Torah, as understood at the time of Jesus, was a continual unfolding of God’s will, new each day, new in each age. Torah was not confining, but empowering, and necessary to being God’s people in the world.

Meditating on the law day and night, as Jesus lives and instructs us to do ourselves, reminds us of our God-given responsibility to love and care for our neighbors, especially those in greatest need. How wonderful it would be if all of us, every day, would read all of Psalm 119. How might the world be different if our love of God’s law was something we treasured in our hearts all day long? For Jesus this is faith: Torah in action every day.

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