by Daniel Harrell
In this morning’s familiar passage, Jesus gets asked what amounts to one of a values clarification question. It’s not unlike being asked to name two things you’d want if ever you were stranded on a deserted island, or what would you grab on your way out of your burning house. I know as a minister I’m supposed to say my Bible, but I’m going to opt for a gassed-up power boat for the deserted island. As for the burning house, that happened to me once and I was happy to get out with my pajamas on. The last time we looked at this passage, I noted how Jesus was coming off another dispute with his nemeses, the Pharisees. A professor of Old Testament law overheard the ruckus, liked what he heard from Jesus, then ventured to pose his own version of the values clarification question: “Of all the commandments in the Old Testament, which is the most important?” While the Matthew and Luke versions of this passage portray the professor as a bit of a trickster, Mark casts him as an honest inquirer. His question was not uncommon. There were understood to be a total of 613 commandments in Old Testament Law (the law being the first five books of the old testament known as the Torah). Because keeping track of all 613 was problematic enough for lawyers, making distinctions between greater and lesser laws essential for anybody wanting to live a moral life. The professor just wanted to know what Jesus ranked as number one.
That Jesus took the professor to be asking an honest question explains why he gave the straight answer he did. Usually when debating the Pharisees Jesus either responded to their questions with questions they couldn’t answer or told a parable that made them look bad. This time Jesus cuts to the chase: “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.’” This most important commandment is known as the shema, from the Hebrew word meaning listen. You find it in Deuteronomy 6. Observant Jews hang it on their front doors, cite it twice daily and strive to make it the last words they utter before dying. And not only Jews, but some Christians too. I knew a sweet saint who sang the shema three times a day with his wife. He said he sang it so much so as not to forget to do it, since as we all know, loving God is one of those things that if not done deliberately, never happens by itself.
And yet as important as loving God is, there is another dimension to it. Jesus goes on to add, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” For those worried that Jesus was throwing the professor a curveball by naming two commandments when the professor asked for just one, note that Jesus only states one command: love. It’s a single verb with three objects. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.
OK, so Jesus didn’t really command that you love yourself. Loving yourself doesn’t need a commandment. Most of us do that without being told, if not out of selfishness or vanity, at least out of self-preservation. To love yourself unduly can be a bad thing, but here Jesus refers more to the concept of self-concern than self-conceit. Just as you take time for yourself, take interest in yourself, want what’s good for yourself and make excuses for yourself―so you should take time for your neighbor, take interest in your neighbor, want what’s good for your neighbor and cut your neighbor slack. However, while “love the Lord your God” shows up in Deuteronomy on the heels of the Ten Commandments in a majestic speech by Moses, “love your neighbor” is buried obscurely in the middle of Leviticus―odd for such a seminal statute. What’s more, “love your neighbor” is buried alongside a number of somewhat wacky Levitical commands about not mating different kinds of animals, not planting your field with two kinds of seeds, not wearing clothes woven from two kinds of material and not sleeping with a woman who is a slave girl promised to another man.
Of course I can’t mention obeying Leviticus without mentioning my book on that topic still available on Amazon entitled How To Be Perfect. Nobody bought it—in every sense of that phrase. It was about 20 of us who obeyed Leviticus for a whole month—something of a joke to my Jewish friends. What’s a month? Obediently, we did not mate different animals, did not plant mixed seeds, did not wear mixed fabrics nor sleep with slave girls promised to other men. Granted, these were fairly easy commands to keep (even the clothing one). Nobody in the group was a breeder or a farmer or, thankfully, knew any slaves. But everybody had neighbors and loving those neighbors was not so easy for reasons that are familiar to us all. Loving others like you love you yourself does not come naturally, and that’s without even mentioning Jesus’ caveat in the gospels that you love your enemies too. Due to the steep degree of difficulty loving your neighbor presents, Luke’s gospel has the professor follow up by asking Jesus to spell out who exactly he meant by neighbor. In more typical Jesus-fashion, we get the parable of the Good Samaritan―which predictably made the professor look bad along with the rest of us too.
I think it’s because loving others like you love yourself does not come naturally that Jesus links it to the shema. It’s loving God that makes loving your neighbor possible―or more to the point, it’s God loving you that makes loving him and your neighbor possible. It’s a point Danielle made in her recent sermons from John’s first epistle. There we read how “We love because God loved us first.” To love God back is to be in relationship with the Lord, but a relationship with the Lord is actually a three way street. John writes, “Whoever loves God must also love his neighbor.” He’s just referencing Jesus here. In the same vein, Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he or she will obey my commands” to love. But again, since obedience needs help, Jesus adds, “If anyone loves me, he or she will obey my commands. My Father will love him, and we will come to her and make our home with them.” Our Father loves us by showing up in person and dying for our sins. He makes us his home by putting his Holy Spirit in our hearts. Loving anybody like you love you yourself does not come naturally; but in Christ God changes your nature. “If anyone is in Christ you are a new creation,” the apostle Paul wrote, “the old is gone. You’re a new person.” Therefore if you are a Christian but fail at loving God and your neighbor as yourself it’s not because you can’t. It’s only because you’re not really trying.
I amused the staff recently about getting haircut in rural North Carolina. My family lives in a small, Mayberry-like town, and whenever I visit it’s always fun to carve a slice of Americana to taste. For instance, we visited the still-working 18th century mill where these ladies stone grind grits. We keep them in stock because Violet eats a bowl every morning. Needing a haircut, I found a barber shop in nearby Stoneville, where Alvis was the barber. Several men were chewing the fat (and tobacco) when I walked in. A Bible sat on the coffee table. NASCAR posters covered the walls. Cheerwine was in the cooler. Alvis donned a white barber coat but nobody was in the chair so I took a seat. Alvis asked me how I wanted my hair cut, but I’m sure it mattered. He was only charging me nine dollars.
Sitting directly opposite was Lonnie, a character right out of Duck Dynasty, carrying on about all that’s wrong with America, cussing our Muslim President and do-nothing government and liberals and foreigners and New Yorkers, all the way down to his aggravating mother-in-law and all other women by extension. He spewed every profane word known to man and then some, worked up as he was, bless his heart. Turning to me he wanted to know how I ended up in their barber shop. I told him in my best twang that I was from these parts, but lived in Minnesota now, which I should have kept to myself.
“What the hell are you doing up there in that God-forsaken, liberal, bad word, bad word, Yankee-loving, carpet-bagging, sorry excuse for a state?” I recounted my journey, making sure to leave out my time in Massachusetts, though I did mention going to college at the University of North Carolina.” “Well, that was your first mistake,” Lonnie said, as he went off on another expletive laden rant about the dangers of education that was several fries short of a Happy Meal.
I knew where all this was headed.“What do you do up there in Minnesota,” Alvis wanted to know, trying to change of subject as Lonnie was getting hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch. Normally in such situations I frame my profession a bit differently, you know, as somebody who works in the social service sector. But this time with good Lord watching and the holy book still sitting on the coffee table, I figured I’d best come clean.
“I’m a minister in a church.”
Alvis almost snipped off my ear. The feller across the room ducked as Lonnie went pale for a second, but then let loose another stream of irreverent invective sufficient to make even the devil blush.
“Lonnie don’t get to church much,” Alvis said.
“God knows he needs him a few serious sinners in the world to keep you preachers busy.” Lonnie barked. “Besides, I ain’t gotta go to church to believe in God. This is America.”
This is America. 314 million people live here with reportedly 245 million of us saying we are Christians. 82 million profess to actually believing Jesus rose from the dead enough to worship him in church as Lord. What would happen if just these 82 million people who report loving Jesus all decided to do what he said? You would see a dramatic drop in poverty because 82 million people would sell possessions to give to the poor like Jesus said. You would see an incredible drop in violence because 82 million people would refuse to return evil for evil, but would turn the other cheek like Jesus said. You’d see fewer lawsuits because people would settle matters out of court like Jesus said. The economy would be less volatile because 82 million people would refuse to love money and would all pay their taxes. The divorce rate would plummet and the climate might even improve since 82 million people loving their neighbor means caring for creation too. 82 million doing what Jesus said could probably change America, giving Lonnie less to cuss. Put 82 million people together with the rest of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians and you might be talking about a whole new world.
I know, I’m being naïve. It might take only 13 muscles in your face to smile, compared to the 42 it takes to frown. However, only 4 muscles are required to extend your arm and smack a person who makes you mad. Anybody can do that math. Among the well-worn strategies when it comes to avoiding what Jesus said about loving others is to treat his words as idealistic. We’ll say that the Bible puts obedience out of reach on purpose so we can see what miserable sinners we are and concede our need for grace. As long as we confess we’re miserable sinners, we can get our forgiveness, and get on with doing what we were going to do anyway.
Except that when Jesus said “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was not being idealistic. You can actually do that. The same with selling some of your possessions and giving the money to the poor. You can stop worrying about your clothes and what to eat, you can turn the other cheek, go an extra mile, lend expecting nothing back and not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing. While metaphorical, none of this is idealistic. It’s hard sometimes, but hardly out of reach. If you don’t obey Jesus, it’s not because you can’t. In Christ you really are a new person.
The Old Testament professor in Mark gave Jesus an A for his answer. “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength’, and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’” This was a significant concession from one whose whole life was built around burnt offerings and sacrifices. So significant that Jesus told the professor he was not far from the Kingdom of God. How far is not far gets left unsaid. We never know whether the professor makes it in. And that’s probably intentional. While there is a security that comes with the assurance of grace, there is a complacency too. Jesus said, “If you love me you will do what I say,” and to the extent that we don’t is the measure of our own distance from the Kingdom.
One reason we come to the communion table over and over and over again. To close that distance. Not just by admitting that we’re miserable sinners and getting our grace. But getting our grace as power to love.
Daniel is away for July attending meetings in Oxford, UK. He and his family will take advantage of the trip to visit friends in London and St. Andrews, a day in Iceland, followed by time with family in Boston. Sermons return in August.