Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel once claimed to be able to condense the entire ethical teaching of the Bible into one sentence, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.” How could one summarize so many years’ worth of religious writings into a single sentence? One that sounds like a take off of one of the Ten Commandments, at that? If Moses needed 10, how could Mr. Weisel’s single command be so all encompassing? Is it possible that such a simple statement really captures what it is that God wants us to understand? Is this actually the message that God sent to us in Scripture?
What does it mean to not stand idly by? Obviously, there is the connotation that we must do good works. This claim is apparent in the sentence. In making this claim Weisel is telling us that we cannot just stand there, he is saying that we must get to work. This claim is found over and over again in Scripture. In fact, it is my humble opinion that this call to endeavor on behalf of others is the central message of the New Testament. Perhaps, the biggest thing God did through Jesus was to teach us that we cannot just stand there, that we are expected to act. If you don’t think that the authors of the New Testament focused on our actions and told us to serve one another out of love more often than anything else they desired to teach us, then maybe you ought read the texts again.
Pastor Roger Ray once claimed to his congregation that if they could not remember Weisel’s words, he would have them tattooed on his body where everybody could see them. Well, I don’t know if he had to get all Memento on them, but I know I certainly remember the words. I am compelled by this charge to take responsibility for one another, to live a life that serves God through serving other human beings. But, I am also driven to ask if that is really all there is to being a Christian. While I stated earlier that I believe that the call to serve and to work for social justice is the central theme of the New Testament, it certainly does not capture all of faith or all of the teachings of the Bible. I am unable to see only calls to action in biblical texts. There is so much more to be discovered! So, is Ellie Weisel way off base, or is there more in his sentence than just a call to action? I believe that there is more to be found in the words of this Jewish Holocaust survivor than a simple call to work hard for other people.
We are not called to a passive faith. Christians are not called to simply go to church, hear what the pastor says and to try and remember it for five or six days. There is much more to being a Christian and there is certainly much more to being a person of true faith. We are called to search for God. In giving us Scripture, God has given us a challenge. God seems to be saying, “Here, read this, know and experience these others, and then come to know me.” It is not that we must all be biblical scholars or physiologists. More simply we are each being asked to make an effort. God does not want the church, your parents, your spouse or your neighbor to spoon-feed you faith. God desires you to develop your own faith. You and I are not meant to idly subscribe to the faith of other people.
The story familiar those of Christian faith is the story of the prodigal son, found in the 15th chapter of Luke. One of the remarkable insights that the careful reader may glean from this story is the attitude of the father. I invite you to read the story again. What you will see is that the father does not wish for his son to stay when an inheritance is demanded of him. This is not because he is hurt or angry, but it looks to me that the father wants his son to go learn some things. He wants his son to undergo the journey that will unfold due to his actions. It is not the father’s wish that his son stay with him idly working through his life. It is the hope of the father that the journey will lead his son to understand the value and the love of home. God is very much like that father as far as I can tell. It is not God’s desire that we attend church and idly fulfill our duties. God hopes that we will be able to make our own choices and that we will subsequently design our own journey. It seems clear that God’s wants us to make this journey and that this journey will end in discovering God’s eternal love.
In the simple sentence offered to us by a man who encountered hell on earth in the form of the Nazi Holocaust, we find a call to work for social justice and for the good of God’s people, but also we find a summons to inquire about God for ourselves. God asks us in Scripture to be active, to not to be leisurely Christians. We are to be vigorous in our religious endeavors. In both our quests for the common good and in our own spiritual journeys, we are to be diligent and effective. So, Weisel just might have captured all of the ethical teachings of our sacred scriptures in their entirety when he said, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”
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