Hearts and Souls, Hands and Foreheads

29 May 2005 at :00 am

Sermon at Eucharist, 29 May 2005 - The First Sunday after Trinity

by the Reverend Graeme Napier, Minor Canon & Succentor

Hearts and Souls, Hands and Foreheads

Deuteronomy 11: 18-21, 26-28, Matthew 7: 21-end

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Deuteronomy 11: 18

These words are instructed to put in our hearts and bind on our hands are the ten commandments – because this passage of Deuteronomy occurs immediately after the commandments have been written again on new tablets of stone and presented to the people.

But these words have come to mean, especially for the Jewish people, not just the ten commandments, but the whole law of the Lord, the 613 commandments, including the instructions for the keeping of Passover.

Now it seems pretty clear what it means to ‘ put these words in your heart and in your soul’ – that surely is to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the commandments of God, such that you know internally, or almost instinctively what the right thing to do is – because you have them inside you. It’s the same idea as is expressed in the words – ‘take this to heart’ or ‘learn this by heart’.

It’s not so clear to us, however, what it might mean to ‘bind these as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead’. But one meaning is clear; and that a meaning given to this passage by orthodox Jews. These Words – Hebrew texts from the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy - are written in tiny print on miniscule scrolls of paper. They are then place in little boxes, made out of black leather, and the boxes – called phylacteries (or tefillin) – are then bound with leather straps around the head and around the right arm.

If you've ever seen Jewish men praying outside – for example at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem – and wandered what the black straps and boxes were on their arms and foreheads – it is these: the Words of the Lord, quite literally, bound to the hand, and fixed to the forehead.

Now this way of relating to the word of God seems foreign and strange to us. We know what it means to take something to heart – to make it one's own conviction – but we don't so easliy see the point of taking something to hand or to head; indeed it sounds to us either silly, or perhaps even hypocritical – you'd be only pretending to take God's law seriously if what you did with it was write it down, in a language you could not read, put it in a box, and strap it to your arm.

But the commandment goes on:
Write these words on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (v 20)

And an interpretation of that is to fix similar scrolls, in containers called mezuzot (singular mezuzah) over the doorway of your house. Again, written in a language you cannot read, and wrapped up in a box. Again we think of this as odd, and as not properly internalised; it doesn’t surely help to get the law of the Lord into your being to nail it in a scroll over your doorway.

So in short, one half of this text makes sense to us (put these words in your heart) and the other half does not (bind these words to your hand). But nonetheless, they are so important that they actually appear twice in the book of Deuteronomy: in the verse we have today, but also in the 6 th (vv 6-8) chapter, with, again, both parts – put them in your heart, and bind them upon your hand.

Perhaps this Judaic practice is something that has no meaning for Western Christians: but we will reconsider that in a moment.

After all, Jesus says that the commandments are fulfilled in one’s taking them to heart. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

And this is consistent with the Old Testament notion that the words of the Lord are to be put in the heart and in the soul.

It is also consistent with what Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Matthew 7: 21-end):

On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

For despite their deeds, their hearts may not have been in keeping with the commandments: just like those who do not murder, but nonetheless may harbour silent anger in their hearts.

This internalisation of Christianity has suited our Western European mindset for quite some time. It is sometimes called justification by faith; the idea that salvation comes through right belief and holy thought, and not through the doing of good works.

Christians, as you know, are very good at disagreeing with one another, and this tension between right belief and good works has been a cause of division among Christians for some time: it being a roughly-speaking Protestant thing to emphasise right belief, and a roughly-speaking catholic thing to emphasise good works.

As we have seen, Jesus turns away those who claim to have done deeds of power in his name and says : I never knew you. And he also acknowledges that those who seem outwardly to be righteous, may well be full of anger or lust.

That’s a point for right belief – it’s how you feel in your heart that really matters.

But that’s not the end of the story. In the very same gospel passage Jesus also says:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell.

Jesus is making a distinction between, on the one hand, hearing and knowing these words of mine – in this case his ‘commandments’ – and, on the other, actually doing what the commandments say.

For Jesus all the Old Testament commandments (be they 613 or 10) are summed up in two: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbour as yourself.

But having the commandment in your heart is clearly not enough: everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

It must be expressed in the way you live your life. That’s a point for good works.

One solution, and a very obvious one, to this tension between belief and works; is that good works should arise out of right belief. If your heart is set on God’s law of love, then you will, apart from through weakness and occasional lapses, live and behave in love to your neighbour. The heart will teach the hand, as it were.

That’s fine as far as it goes, and suits our interiorised notion of religion which makes us think that hearts are more important than hands. But it is only half of the full understanding of the relationship between right belief and good deeds. For, what we have forgotten is that not only can the heart teach the hand, but the hand can teach the heart.

It is by actually doing works of love, even when we do not feel love in our hearts, that we can change the way we think and feel. It is by doing the things we know to be right, even when, or especially when, we don’t really feel like doing them, that the hand begins to teach the heart.

We teach our hearts by doing what we aught to do.
To act with gentleness, when you are angry.
To give of your time or resources, when you are feeling selfish.
To behave humbly, when pride is in your heart.
To listen, when you would rather speak.

It is such act which change the heart, when slowly but surely, the anger will turn to gentleness, the selfishness to generosity of spirit, the pride to humility, the sin to love.This is the law of God working from the outside in: just as we know it can work from the inside out. But working from the outside in is something we’ve rather forgotten.

Right belief can bring forth good works. And good works can bring forth right belief. And when both are achived more and more, we conform more and more to the image of Christ.

Let us then not only put the commandments in our hearts, to see what will become of them there. But let us also bind them to our hands – that is - do them, and see what will become of our hearts then.

And not our hands only, for there is more to our conduct in life than what we might ordinarily think of as doing. Mostly we relate to other people in what we say, where we choose to look, what we choose to hear, what we smile upon, what we disdain. So let us also fix the commandment upon our foreheads; speaking, seeing, giving heed, as we know to be right; and let us see what becomes of it there.

And if we are helped in this doing of the commandments by wearing texts of scripture (in Hebrew, or Greek, or Latin, or any other language) upon our persons, or writing them on our doorposts or on samplers above our beds, or wearing the Cross around our necks, or the Fish upon our breasts: then that’s all to the good. Such binding and fixing can only remind us that what we do changes who we are.

And then we may be like those who hear these words of Jesus and act on them: like the wise who build their house upon rock, a house with the law of God on the doorposts and on the gates. Security – salvation – in heart and deed.

You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.

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