Pirke Avot 1:2

The world stands on three things – on the study of Scripture, on the service of God, and on acts of loving-kindness.

The rabbi who is credited with the thought above (Shimon the Righteous) probably lived shortly before the time of Jesus.

What does it mean to say that “the world stands” on these three activities?  The rabbis said that the world continues to exist only because they are being done – at least somewhere in the world.  Otherwise God would be so frustrated with our world that God would give up on it.  Not so much in punishment, but perhaps in the same sort of way that you and I might give up on something that refuses to do what it was intended to do – a car that won’t run despite huge repair bills at the shop, a pair of shoes that don’t fit, a soggy newspaper whose print has run all together.

So – the study of Scripture.  There’s a copy of the Bible in almost every home – many of which sit on a shelf gathering dust.  It doesn’t say that simply having a copy of the Scripture has much value.  Study is not the same thing as flipping through it out of boredom or even well-intentioned attempts to read the whole Bible that end somewhere in the middle of the book of Exodus.

Study of the Scriptures means that we read it attentively.  We ponder it.  We share our study with others.  We question it.  We argue about what it means.  We argue with the text itself.  We make a consistent effort with it – through busy times and slow times.  We take it seriously as the Word of God – not just a Word spoken eons ago, but a Word for us today.   Our tradition means that we seek to use it as a guide for our relationship with God and with others and as a guide for our lives.

If we attend weekly mass we hear a reading from the Hebrew scriptures, sing a psalm, hear a reading from one of the letters of the early church (normally St. Paul), and hear a reading from one of the gospels.  Then we have an 8 to 10 minute homily.  In all of this we have the opportunity to let God speak to us and transform us and our experience of the world.  One form of the study of scripture that many find very helpful and do-able os to read these readings in advance of church attendance and to meditate on them before and after.

The service of God.  God doesn’t really need anything from us of course.  The opening lines of the old Catholic Baltimore catechism started with this very point.  “Why did God make me?”  “God made me to know, love, and serve God.”   How do we serve God?

In ancient times we served God with sacrifices in the temple.   With the destruction of the Temple Judaism shifted to a service of prayer and praise.  For Catholics that service reaches its peak in a communal celebration of the Eucharist each week.

Our Catholic tradition has something called the Liturgy of the Hours which is rooted in ancient monastic practices.  The monks stopped whatever they were doing every four hours (including their sleeping!) for communal prayer.  Service to God.  Morning prayer opens with a verse from the psalms: “LORD, open my lips so that my mouth may proclaim your praise.”

Acts of loving-kindness.  The continuing existence of the world depends on us studying the Scriptures, praising God, and DOING acts of loving-kindness for others.  There’s a bumper-sticker that talks about practicing random acts of kindness.  That’s a start.  Both the rabbis of his time and Jesus got more specific than that:

  • feed the hungry
  • visit the sick and imprisoned
  • clothe the naked
  • comfort the grieving
  • and more.  Not ‘feelings’ of love and kindness, but deeds of loving kindness.

Study.  Praise.  Love.   Each feeds the other two.  They get so intertwined that they even become one act.  In one’s life lived this way each becomes indistinguishable – it’s not like one has to stop doing this to do that because they all three come together.

What brings them together?  Working together they bring us into “right relationship”.  Right relationship with God – our creator and sustainer.  Right relationship with one another.  Right relationship with creation itself.

Study.  Praise.  Act lovingly.  They work together a lot like the legs of  this three-legged stool.  (This picture comes from Amish Traditions if you would like to order one!)

Right relationship comes with study, praise, and loving acts toward others.   When we are in right relationship all is well with the world (though it isn’t ever going to be perfect).  And don’t we say, from the other point of view, when things are going wrong and we are NOT in right relationship – that “it’s as if the world is crashing down on me?”

As I get older I know how quickly one thing out of right relationship or alignment affects everything else.

A bad toe leads to a bad knee.

The bad knee leads to a limp and then a bad hip.

A bad hip leads to a bad back.

A bad back leads to a bad night’s sleep which means I’m tired at work and things go further downhill from there.

The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus, when asked about what one had to do to enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus replied: “Love the LORD your God with your whole heart, whole mind, whole being.  This is the greatest and first commandment.  The second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus did not make this up – these instructions are a part of the Scriptures and of the wisdom of earlier rabbis.  And, I think, Jesus was presuming that his listeners already knew how important the study of the Scriptures were.

Study, praise, act lovingly.  Our Eucharist includes readings from scripture and a homily – so that when we gather together we begin by study of the Scripture.  We then have praise, prayer, and a breaking of the bread together to feed us and nourish us for the week to come.   And then we are dismissed: Let us go to love and serve the LORD and one another.

What do you think?