We pray, “…increase in us the gifts of faith, hope and charity;
and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command….”
Deuteronomy is the final chapter of Torah and the journey from Egypt to a new homeland. Throughout Deuteronomy Moses summarizes the 613 commandments, how to be God’s people Israel. Just before he dies the God of the Exodus shows him all the land of promise, and reminds Moses that he will not enter that land stemming from a lapse of faith on Moses’ part earlier in the wilderness sojourn. Moses who has been quite skilled in arguing with God offers no complaint, dies at the ripe old age of 120 and is buried we-know-not-where. After 30 days of mourning, the people move on with Joshua appointed by Moses to be their new leader. [Deut 34:1-12]
Sometime later, we find Jesus in Jerusalem, just days before he is to die at the hands of Israel’s Roman oppressors, being pressed by a group of Pharisees to summarize the 613 commandments of Torah as Moses had done. Jesus offers two: Love God and Love neighbor, commandments from Deuteronomy and Leviticus respectively learned along the forty-year wilderness sojourn. If you love God and neighbor you will embody a life of faith, hope and charity.
Then Jesus, much like a Pharisee himself, asks them a question about whose son do you think the Messiah will be. They say, “The son of David,” the great military and warrior king. Surely one of his descendants would throw off the Romans and inaugurate the new age of God’s kingdom. No more of these ineffectual kings the very idea of which God had told the boy prophet Samuel would not work out to any satisfaction. Kings always end up forsaking faith, hope and charity and believing only in their own power which inevitably results in a kingdom of covetousness as represented by David’s son Solomon. We are told that Solomon’s household provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour, and sixty cors of meal, ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides harts, gazelles, roebucks, and fatted fowl, and a partridge in a pear tree! [1 Kings 4:22-23] What Solomon represents in the Bible is the kingdom of covetousness, over-consumption, at the expense of the common man and woman. The very opposite of what Jesus represents, who says of Solomon [Mt 6:25-29] that with all his conspicuous consumption and covetousness Solomon was not as well off as a flower in a field or a bird in the air!
It is after Saul of Tarsus encounters the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus that he is transformed from being an instrument of the Empire in arresting and harassing followers of the Christ to become the Apostle Paul, an evangelist for the Gentiles. And it is Paul in his epic thirteenth chapter of his letter to the church in Corinth who offers his own summary of the commandments as faith, hope and charity. Modern translations have it as faith, hope and love, but I stick with charity because as the King James has it the rhyme scheme is better (abide these three, but the greatest of these is charity), and because we tend to think of love strictly in romantic terms, witness how often this is read at weddings, even those outside of the church! Yet, charity connotes something more like what Leviticus really means by love for neighbor: doing something helpful or useful for the other, even if you do not know them or even like them. And Leviticus, as does Jesus in Luke’s parable of the The Good Samaritan, extends neighbor to include resident aliens and even our greatest enemies. Very inconvenient to be sure, but startlingly relevant to much of today’s political rhetoric here in the USA which is described by some as a “Christian nation.”
I was once in the Episcopal Cathedral Church in Rochester, NY, which has a gigantic stained-glass window depicting Lady Charity, larger than life, bounding out of the window with tremendous enthusiasm. Nearby were windows depicting Paul saying, “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind,” and “The God of Love shall be with you.” I was to be leading a Stewardship session in the Cathedral and I said, “You really just need to bring people from all over the diocese to look at, experience and discuss these three windows to find out what stewardship, faith, hope and charity are all about.”
It is this same Saint Paul to whom I appealed when asked by my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor to find a passage in scripture that describes my vision of parish ministry. I settled on the earliest of Paul’s letters, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 2, verses 4-8: “…but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts. For we never used either words of flattery, as you know, or a cloak for greed, as God is witness; nor did we seek glory from men, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse taking care of her children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”[RSV]
Here Paul epitomizes both love of God and love of neighbor, and the essence of faith, hope and charity. Paul acknowledges that there are those apostles and missionaries of the Gospel who think it is all about them. Yet, he recognizes that this is the very problem with kings over against allowing God to raise up leadership ad hoc as needed as was done from Abraham to the time of Moses and Joshua, and the period of Judges that followed until the people begged Samuel to convince God to give them a king. The results were not good as Solomon epitomizes.
Living in community, Christian or otherwise, means leaving one’s personal concerns at the door. From the very first time I read this part of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians I have gone back to it and back to it to remind me of my task here and wherever God sends me. As Paul acknowledges just prior to this in chapter 2, it has not always been easy or pleasant. The task is to not let that get in the way of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, and to do so with one’s whole self. We are all called, not just the ordained ministry, but all people everywhere I believe are created to live lives of faith, hope and charity. It is not easy in an atmosphere of a 24/7 news cycle and an as yet unfettered internet that rarely offers evidence that faith, hope and charity are justified.
Yet, as that other rabbi, almost a contemporary to Jesus, Hillel put it: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And, if not now, when?
It is humbling every day that I wake up and attempt to live up to Paul’s ideals of being an Apostle – one who is sent to bring others into God’s Beloved Community, as Martin Luther King, Jr so eloquently put it throughout his struggles for civil rights and for the poor. As we pray, faith, hope and charity are gifts, and as such we need to cherish them and employ them to the best of our ability. As Paul writes elsewhere to the church in Rome, the whole world is standing on tip-toes eager to see faith, hope and charity become a reality for all people, all creatures and the planet Earth itself. If not now, when?