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“An hour of study is…”

Date: June 24, 2024/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

June 23, 2024

An hour of study is…

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Fred Craddock told some of the best stories.  There’s even a book of them compiled by a couple of his students and colleagues.[1]

I don’t know that this one is in that book; I first heard it in a recording someone made of a lecture of his, maybe at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon.  He said he was guest preaching at a church somewhere in Oklahoma one Sunday.  It was his custom to teach an adult Sunday school class when he was preaching somewhere like that, so he asked if he could do that there.

When he got to the class, he asked them what they were studying that week, and was told they were going to be looking at the Great Commission at the end of Matthew.  He asked a gentleman in the class to read it, and after he had finished, the man said, “Well, I’ll be dogged.”

Asked to clarify, the man said, “I never saw that before.  First it says, ‘When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted,’ but then it says, ‘And Jesus came and said to them…’  He was already there, and then it says Jesus came to them.  Why?”

Fred said, “Well, what do you think?”

The man replied, “I don’t know.  Maybe Matthew was like me and couldn’t write so good.”

“Don’t you talk about the Bible that way!” a woman in the class said.  “It’s the inspired Word of God!”

So Fred asked her, “Well, what do you think about it?”

And she said, “We’re not to know all these things.  We’ll know these things someday”—which, of course, pretty well silenced the man who had made the observation in the first place.

I had several classmates at George Fox who belonged to a very fundamentalist denomination.  I and my friend Lauri, also a Disciple, both got crosswise with one of them, who called us both heretics.

In my case, it was because, after spending a good amount of time with the story of Adam and Eve in the second and third chapters of Genesis, I said it looked like God was not being portrayed there as all-knowing.  This classmate’s church required that everybody agree to a pretty rigid set of beliefs, one of which was that God was all-knowing—or to use the ten-dollar theological term, omniscient.  He said that saying God wasn’t omniscient was “flirting with heresy.”

My reply was, “I’m just pointing out what I see in the text.”  He refused to see it, because it contradicted his church’s statement of belief.

I had another classmate there who occasionally referred to the place where we were all studying as a “cemetery” rather than a seminary.  He seemed to think that actually examining the Bible, what’s in it and how it came to be put together as it is; thinking through the history of the Christian faith, what we’ve gotten right and wrong over the centuries; asking questions about our beliefs and how we arrived at them; would kill people’s faith.  One wanted to ask the guy, “Why are you here, then?”

The Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all have Jesus list what he believes are the greatest of all the commandments given in the Jewish Law.  What he says actually echoes what other rabbis of his day also said, quoting a passage from Deuteronomy—today’s reading—and one from Leviticus 19:18.

But Jesus makes a small change to the Deuteronomy passage.[2]  Where Deuteronomy commands us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might, Jesus adds another aspect of human existence that should be turned toward love of God:  the mind.  I wonder why.

There seem to be quite a few Christians who believe science and faith are incompatible.  I’m not one of them.  Nobody ever told me a person couldn’t be a Christian and also believe in the scientific theory of evolution—as a matter of fact, I was in college before I even knew some people see a conflict between evolution and the Bible, particularly the first chapter of Genesis.

And before anybody comes at me with, “Well, evolution is just a theory,” it’s important to recognize that there is a difference between what theory means in popular understanding and what it means in the scientific method. 

All the science classes I ever took, from junior high school onward, began with an explanation of the scientific method.  It begins when someone formulates a hypothesis.  The easiest way to understand what hypothesis means is this:  Someone asks, “I wonder…”

Then they test the hypothesis—making observations, performing experiments, seeing what the results are.  These tests are supposed to be repeatable—in other words, people other than the original one who asks, “I wonder…” also observe and experiment, and make a note of their results.  Some of these tests might confirm the original hypothesis, and some might say, well, that was partially right, but here’s where I got different results.  And then more tests are done, and the original hypothesis might be adjusted to account for those different results.

Once enough people have tested and observed and gotten consistent results, a hypothesis becomes a theory—which is the closest thing to fact that the scientific method includes.  And a theory is always up for re-evaluation; if somebody does another test down the road and realizes there are still adjustments that need to be made, the theory incorporates those adjustments.

This has happened to the theory of evolution since it was first articulated in the 1800s by Charles Darwin.  But the main point of the theory of evolution—that species change over time as genetic mutations make the species more or less successful in surviving and reproducing—has not been disproven.)

But why would Jesus—whose contemporaries would have had no knowledge of modern science, much less evolution—tell us to love God with our minds?  Was he just telling us to study science?

There were people studying science in Jesus’ time, even though it wasn’t modern science; and quite honestly I think all people are scientists in some way, just like all people are theologians in some way.  We all say, “I wonder…” and then look around or try doing things in a new way, and see what happens.  We all ask, “What is God like, and what does God expect of us?”  And there is nothing wrong with either of those. 

But is that what Jesus was telling us?  Well, maybe.

He was certainly saying that we should study the Scriptures as we’re able—remember that in his day, and for centuries afterward, very few people could read; but that doesn’t mean people in those times were ignorant or stupid, because we can learn from people telling stories, from oral tradition, and again, from trying things out for ourselves.

We ought to keep in mind that Jesus, as well as all of his first disciples and many who became disciples later, like the apostle Paul, was Jewish; and Judaism to this day puts a very high value on learning, even learning about things other than Scripture (which has a much more expansive meaning in the Jewish faith).

Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish New Testament scholar who co-edited The Jewish Annotated New Testament, in her book about Jesus called The Misunderstood Jew, described how she grew up as a Jew who attended Catholic school (because the Catholic school was the best school in the place where she and her family lived).

At one point, one of her Catholic classmates told her, “You killed our Lord.”  The classmate said, “Our priest said so.”  She’d been taught that “the Jews” were responsible for the death of Jesus, and since Amy-Jill was the only Jew she knew, she must be guilty.

When Amy-Jill got home and told her mother what had happened, there were calls made, and no more children were taught such a hateful thing in that diocese—and a year later the Vatican published a document called Nostra Aetate, through which the church officially renounced the belief that all Jews are directly responsible for Jesus’ death.

But this incident set the course of Amy-Jill Levine’s life.

She was already studying the Jewish Scriptures in Hebrew school, and she knew about translation errors and the like; so she was sure that the whole idea that “the Jews killed Jesus” must be a translation error, and if she’d just find that error and solve it, everybody would live happily ever after.  So Amy-Jill asked her parents to allow her to attend catechism classes with her Catholic friends—those classes took place two days a week after school, while she attended Hebrew school two more days each week.  Her parents allowed it:  “As long as you remember who you are, go learn.”[3]

As long as you remember who you are, go learn.  Love the Lord your God with your mind!

Actually, even by adding this to the first of the greatest commandments, Jesus wasn’t inventing something out of whole cloth.  The rest of the passage we read, after that great commandment, is pretty much a Deuteronomic description of loving God with the mind, even though the commandment itself doesn’t come right out and say it.

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[4]

In other words, think about Torah, study it, discuss it, teach it to others; keep it always at the forefront of your mind.

So today we are thinking about the spiritual discipline of study.  Dallas Willard seems to indicate that only study of the Bible must be part of this spiritual practice.  But many scholars do not agree, and neither do I.  There are many things in the world that are worth studying.

Yes, we do need to study the Bible—that should be as much a given for Christians as prayer is.  Our bulletin insert this week describes a simple Bible study technique that anybody can use.  (It says to mark up a passage of Scripture, and make a key so you can know what your marks mean.  If you want to see an example, I’ve put copies of the key I use out in the foyer with the sermon manuscripts.)

But we might also study the writings of various Christian scholars and theologians through history.  And we can go beyond that.

Study human behavior, why people do what they do, how both the goodness of God’s image within us and the fallenness of creation play out in our behavior and relationships.  Study how humans organize themselves into groups, families, congregations, even nations, and how those groups are governed.

Study the major religions of the world—again, as Dr. Levine’s parents told her, as long as we remember who we are, learning about other faiths is no threat to ours; and knowing what other people believe can help us clarify and strengthen what we believe, as well as recognizing what all of humanity has in common.

Study languages—understanding how other language work can help us understand how our own language works, not to mention make it possible for us to communicate with people we might not otherwise be able to talk to.

And yes, study science.  You may or may not know that modern science began in monasteries, as the brothers and sisters there sought to know more about God by learning about God’s creation.  Science and faith are two different, but not conflicting, ways that people have sought to explain the world around us.

One of the greatest things about living today is that information is easily available to us that would have required quite a bit more effort to access in the past.  Computers and the internet mean we can get our hands on books, articles, and videos about all sorts of topics.  You can download an app to your phone that lets you learn a great variety of languages—some of these apps even allow you to learn for free.

Now, with this great blessing comes a caveat:  not all the information that is on the internet is good information.  Some of it is wrong, and some of it is just plain weird.

We might apply the scientific method to our exploration of the internet.  If we read something and think, “That sounds interesting…” it would probably help us to look around and make sure there are reputable sources out there that confirm it.

Let’s say you are looking for a home remedy to ease symptoms of the common cold.  You type that into Google, and up pops a website where you can get detailed instructions for how to cure a cold by shoving lima beans up your nose.  (Yes, it’s a ridiculous example, but bear with me.)  Well, that sounds easy enough, you might think; I have some lima beans in the pantry and nobody seems to like eating them, so this way they at least won’t go to waste.[5]

But maybe you want to make sure that’s actually going to work, so you keep searching—and nobody else you can find agrees with that first website; in fact, some other ones say putting beans in your nose can be downright dangerous.

Maybe you realize that there are some reasonably trustworthy sites out there that provide good medical information—the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic websites come to mind—so you go see what they have to say.  Both of them will probably describe several ways to help yourself feel better when you’ve got a cold, but I would venture to guess neither of them will advocate putting beans in your nose.

Sure it’s a ridiculous example—nobody over the age of about four years old generally thinks putting beans in their nose is a good idea—but you get my point, I hope.

God didn’t give us our minds as temptations to be overcome.  God gave our minds to us so that we can learn, explore, experiment, invent, love God and our neighbor, and make the world a better place.

Fred Craddock once quoted a rabbinic saying:  “An hour of study is in the sight of the Holy One, [may that one be blessed], as an hour of prayer.”

That’s why study is a spiritual discipline.

[1] Craddock Stories, ed. Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward (who was a professor of mine at Phillips a couple years ago).  Chalice Press, 2001.

[2] Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28.

[3] Dr. Levine tells this story in the introduction to The Misunderstood Jew:  The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York:  HarperCollins, 2006), pp. 2-3.

[4] This last sentence is the origin of the Jewish practice of binding tefillim and mezuzot, which contain this text, on their arms and foreheads and attaching them to the doors of their homes.  Whether the commandment was meant to be taken literally has been debated over the years; but in any case tefillim and mezuzot symbolize that the person has Torah written on their hearts.

[5] FWIW, I love lima beans, and would much rather eat them than shove them up my nose.