By Rev. J.C. Austin
A few weeks ago, I went with my family to visit the memorial for Jim Thorpe, who of course is widely regarded as the greatest athlete of modern times. I knew Thorpe’s story pretty well, having read biographies of him when I was growing up. What I didn’t remember was that, long before his glory in the Olympics or in football and baseball and so much more, his favorite activity growing up as a member of the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma was follow-the-leader.
Wait, follow-the-leader? I don’t know about you, but I think of follow-the-leader in terms of how it’s usually played by children today: one child is the leader and the others have to copy them, whether they are crawling under tables, or dancing a silly dance, or singing a song that they make up on the spot. Sure, it’s a fun activity for kids, but it seems like a long way from the path to Olympic glory.
But follow-the-leader around the turn of the 20th century was very different, especially if you were living somewhere rural, with access to wilderness: it was closer to an extreme sport than to “circle time.” The “leader” would take the others up and down trees, over hills, across streams, and so on. And apparently all the kids who played with Thorpe would groan when it was his turn, because they knew they were in for an almost impossible journey: scrambling up rock faces, swimming lakes, leaping over yawning crevices, and running, running, running.
It made me think of stories about Teddy Roosevelt, who was a generation older than Thorpe and obviously lived a life of extreme privilege in contrast to Thorpe’s poverty and endurance of racial discrimination. But Roosevelt shared Thorpe’s passion for strenuous activity as a child and maintained it throughout adulthood. He was an avid outdoorsman who was particularly passionate about hiking and was renowned for being able to walk pretty much anybody into the ground with his speed and endurance.
But it wasn’t just that. Roosevelt disdained hiking that followed established trails through the wilderness. Instead, he would invite people to join him on what he called “straight-line hikes,” which is exactly what it sounds like: he’d pick a direction and just go, no matter what he encountered: tall cliffs, sharp thickets of briars, raging rivers; he would just plow up and over and through for miles and miles until he was done.
He continued this practice even as President: returning to the White House from the nearby wilderness areas of Maryland or Virginia looking like he had just walked through a hurricane as he bounded up the steps flashing his signature Cheshire Cat grin, and followed by whatever unfortunate member of Congress or Cabinet Secretary or foreign diplomat had gone with him that day, who was gasping for air and just trying to stay upright at that point.
If you enjoy hiking and don’t want have to choose between following a manicured trail or an adrenaline-seeking leader, though, there is another option: orienteering. Orienteering is both a technique and a competitive sport in which you navigate through an unfamiliar area of wilderness by using a compass and a detailed topographic map.
To begin, you align the arrow pointing north on your map with the direction that your compass needle is pointing north. Then you look for features in the landscape that you can find noted on your map in the direction that you want to go: a stream, a rock outcropping, and so on. Once you’ve done that, you have “oriented” the map, because you know where you are, where you’re going, and how to get there, and you simply navigate from feature to feature until you reach your goal.
Metaphors of journeying, following, and navigating have been used from the very beginning of Christianity to explain the nature of our faith. In fact, they predate the very notion of “Christianity” itself. In the earliest days of the Christian faith, as it began to spread following Jesus’ resurrection and commissioning of the apostles, the terms Christianity and Christians didn’t even exist. Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior was known simply as, “The Way,” and those who had such faith and were living it out were known as “People of the Way.”
But in Greek, the word that gets translated as “the Way” has different shades of meaning. It can mean a “way” in the sense of a road or path; something that has been cleared and established by someone else for you, like those trails that Teddy Roosevelt disliked so much. It can mean a direction or method that you follow, like Jim Thorpe’s follow-the-leader or Teddy Roosevelt’s straight-line hikes. Or it can mean a journey or a trip or an expedition, the act of traveling from one place to another, like navigating to a destination using orienteering.
How you interpret that word, then, has a great deal to do with how you understand what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ, who are traditionally called “disciples” in the Christian faith. There are those who believe that Christian discipleship is about staying on a clearly marked and maintained uniform path, and who view Scripture as that path, with no intersections or branches or multiple routes; no alternatives and no ambiguity to the one clear path.
There are those who believe that Christian discipleship is more like follow-the-leader or a straight-line hike, in which you simply do whatever you think Jesus tells you to do, or you go in the direction that you think he wants you to go in, heedless of anything that tries to get in your way. But both of those approaches are problematic for two reasons. First, they both try to provide a guarantee on which they can’t deliver. Sometimes Scripture is not always a clear path; there often can be multiple ways of reading it, and it can be hard to tell which interpretations are the right way to go and which ones end up pulling you off track or leading you into dead-ends, or worse. And second, they both ignore that to be a disciple doesn’t simply mean to follow passively and unquestioningly. The word disciple comes from the same word as “discern,” and to discern something means you have to actively search and interpret in order to find the correct meaning, like orienting a map with your compass and looking for features that show you the best way forward to your destination. So Scripture, then, is like a detailed topographic map to guide us on our way of faith, but if we fail to orient it correctly, all those details can quickly get us even more lost than if we simply stayed in place, because we start assigning the wrong significance to the wrong features.
Now, this third option is not some new or radical idea about how to read Scripture or live a life of Christian discipleship; in fact, it’s the most traditional of the three, going all the way back to the beginning of the Christian faith when Jesus was still teaching, because it carried over from the rabbinic traditions of Judaism, as we see in this confrontation between Jesus and lawyer. The lawyer asks him, “Teacher, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”
It’s a fairly straightforward question: which commandment in the Law does Jesus believe is the most important? Now the Law, the Jewish Torah, is the map to the covenant between God and the people of Israel; its purpose is to guide them in their life and identity as the people of God, showing them how to be faithful. The lawyer, then, is asking Jesus how he orients that map: which commandment points to magnetic north, which one gives you a fixed position that allows you to understand the others in finding your way.
Jesus responds, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.” Jesus is hardly going out on a limb here. What he’s quoting is Deuteronomy 6:5, which is the cornerstone of traditional Jewish prayer practice.
Known as the Shema, Jewish people traditionally pray the fourth and fifth verses of the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy when they wake up in the morning, when they go to bed at night, at the height of the Yom Kippur service (the holiest day of the year), and ideally as the final words before death. If the lawyer was looking for a controversy, Jesus certainly did not give him one; this answer would have been impossible to dispute. It is the true needle of the compass to orient oneself to God and Scripture in the Judaism.
Yet Jesus continues: “And a second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Here he’s quoting the book of Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 18, and here he is also not being original in highlighting this verse. Rabbi Hillel, one of the two most influential rabbis in the world in the 1st century and the one whose teachings became the foundation of Judaism after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem; he died when Jesus would have been somewhere around his early teenage years.
Perhaps Hillel’s most famous teaching was in response to a similar challenger to this lawyer confronting Jesus. A young man came to Rabbi Hillel and said, “Convert me, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot,” undoubtedly smirking at his own impudent cleverness. Hillel responded, “what is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”
Hillel was simply stating the negative version of the Scripture that Jesus quotes here: “love your neighbor as yourself.” When telling this young man how to orient the Torah so it could be understood and followed, Hillel was actually more radical than Jesus in not mentioning the Shema!
What’s crucial about the compass that Jesus identifies is that he links these two teachings as indivisible. He could have easily stopped at the Shema: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. But he doesn’t; he specifically says, “a second is like it,” is just as important: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And then just in case there’s any doubt, he says, “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
They are the compass that orients the map of God’s Word; that enables us to know where we are, where we are going on the way of faith, and how to get there; that helps us to recognize the features that we encounter in a life of faith, not as random occurrences, but as landmarks to guide us and pitfalls to avoid. So when Scripture gets confusing, when life gets crazy, when decisions about where and how to go forward faithful are before us and there’s no clear path laid out for us, these two commandments help us to get reoriented and find our way through.
And having both of those commandments to orient us is crucial, because the story of Christianity, from early on right up to the present day, is filled with horrifying examples of just how terribly lost we can get if we think we can love God with our whole being but withhold love for our neighbor, usually by convincing ourselves that some kinds of people are not really our neighbors in the first place, and so we can safely pass them by or even actively do them harm.
What Jesus is saying that is so important here is not that we need to love God or that we need to love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, as ourselves, but that to do one is to do the other, and to do them is to fulfill both the essence and the sum total of what Scripture calls us to do and to be. And thus, anytime we start thinking that we as Christians can love God while harming or hating or ignoring our neighbors, we are already going way off course. At best, we are likely to get very lost; at worst, we can quickly put ourselves or others in real danger and do real harm, especially if we insist we are doing so because we love God.
The good news is that it is never too late to orient ourselves by love: to discern our path and examine our decisions, whether they are personal or moral or political or social or any other kind of decisions, and see if they line up in relation to loving God with our whole heart and soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves. And if they do not, then to stop where we’re going, and turn in a new direction, and let ourselves be led by God’s love and towards God’s love, through our love for God and our neighbor. May that love be clear to us as we make our way through these challenging days, and clear through us to God and our neighbors as we do so.