PROPER 26, B
Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Mark 12:28-34
If there is any possible way to sum up the entire Judeo-Christian message in a few words, we have it today in Mark’s Gospel. Let’s begin with the Old Testament reading, where we hear Moses addressing the Hebrew people before they cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. He is pleading, encouraging, ordering them to obey God’s commands, “so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Imbedded in this speech is the central command of Judaism, one that precedes many Jewish prayers, and is called the Shema. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (or the Lord is one). You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
Moses goes on to say they should tell this to their children and their grandchildren, they should recite it night and day, and they should “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.”
Have you even seen a picture of an Orthodox Jew at prayer? They wear a little box in the middle of their foreheads and wrap something around their hands. Even reformed Jews often place a Mesusah on their doorposts or just inside their front door. All these items have inside of them a small piece of paper with the Shema written on it. What a potent reminder of who they are and to whom they belong!
We hear this prayer again in today’s Gospel story. Jesus is in the temple during the week of Passover and has been disputing with some Sadducees. A scribe, having overheard some of this discourse, asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the greatest of them all?”
Jesus replies, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
I’m repeating this part of the Gospel for several reasons. I’m sure it sounds very familiar to you because for some time now we have been saying exactly this just before confession in our service. It’s an optional practice, but I like to include it because it connects us to our Jewish roots and because it so neatly summarizes what the requirements are to live a Christian life.
The first command clearly comes from Deuteronomy. The second comes from Leviticus. Notice that there are several ways in which Jesus changes the original. He combines the love of God with the love of neighbor in a new way. He also changes the Shema by adding “with all your mind.”
I see this as extremely small but extremely significant. As you all know, there are people who process things emotionally first, and there are others who process things intellectually. This tendency seems to be hard-wired. Some of us are inclined to do it only one way. I’ve always been a head person, and it took a lot of time and work to learn to process in another way. I’m still more mind than heart, but more balanced than in years past.
Jesus understood that we need to love God with all our faculties, all of which are important and should be developed as best we can. None of them should be disdained.
So, what does it mean to love God? Surely we are not talking about any sort of erotic love. I’m sure that for some people love of God is a powerful emotional feeling, but for others it may be more a matter of giving their trust to God, of turning their lives over to God. This may well include a sense of surrender, of turning their lives, their worries, and their fears over to God. In either case, awe and gratitude are surely a part of it.
So does it mean the same thing to love your neighbor? I don’t thing so. For one thing love of God is something given from a subordinate to a superior. Love of neighbor is a peer-to-peer relationship.
Notice that Jesus does not say, “Love your neighbor as you love your God.” That would be idolatry. Rather love your neighbor as yourself. This speaks of equality, doesn’t it? We are all children of God and as such deserve a certain respect and dignity. To love your neighbor as yourself is just a restatement of the golden rule. It is not asking you to surrender your life to them. In other words being a doormat is not only not required, but it would not be loving yourself equally with the other person. No one is meant to get the better of the other.
The other difference is that we love God because God loves us, or as a response to God’s love for us. Not so with our neighbors, at least not necessarily. I’ve had neighbors I loved, and some — not so much. That’s OK. We don’t have to like them all, nor entertain them all, nor confide in them all. But we owe them the dignity and respect due to any child of God, even when we hate the way they behave. After all, they may eventually learn better, if not in this life, then maybe in the next.
Loving our neighbor as ourselves means that we will not judge them, condemn them, or cast them out, in any of the forms that might take. That sort of judgment is God’s job. We can’t help making judgments for ourselves – who to have for friends, how to live our lives, what ethical stances we want to take, but we must not make those same judgments for others. We surely don’t like it when someone wants to make them for us, do we?
Did all of you grow up as I did, saying frequently to my parents, “But that’s not fair!” I seem to remember having a highly developed sense of fairness when I was young. This, combined with love of neighbor, creates an adult demand for justice. This demand for justice may begin with ourselves, but also flows out to all our neighbors, if we love them as ourselves.
Why? Because it’s obvious that it isn’t fair that I have everything I need and more, while some people don’t have enough. We may argue about how to fix this, but I think we can agree on the basic premise. Oh yes, some people don’t work as hard as I do, but I know that some work way harder and still can’t get ahead. Giving them charity is only a stop=gap. Justice is giving everyone a chance to at least have enough, so that children are not going to school hungry, so that parents have time and energy to talk to their children, so that one illness or one automotive failure does not put a family under.
Wow, when I read this lesson on Monday I thought I’d have nothing to say about it and here I am on my soapbox again. I suppose that is a reflection of the centrality of this statement to Christian life. If you don’t know or care anything about the details of the Bible, if you don’t give a fig for the fine points or any points of theology, if you just want to live a good life without a lot of thought, just remember the two commandments Jesus gave us: love God, love your neighbor as yourself. That’s enough. AMEN