How Broad Is Our Love?
Love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength . . . and love your neighbor as yourself.
That’ll preach. When I saw the lectionary readings for this Sunday, I knew just what I would find. Here we go again, I thought, one of those self-righteous religious leaders was going to put Jesus to the test, set a trap, seek to ensnare the wandering backwater charismatic. You think you know so much, do you? Picking and choosing which laws to follow and which to ignore as they fit your need for the moment. Well then, tell me, which commandment is the greatest of all?
That’s what I thought the passage said . . . then I went back and read it more carefully – in five different translations. And, and according to Mark, that’s not what happened at all. Mark tells us that one of the scribes -- one of the keepers and interpreters of the law – Mark tells us that this student of the law was SO impressed with what he had heard Jesus teach that he asked Jesus: “Which is the most important commandment?” It wasn’t a test . . . he really wanted to learn.
It shouldn’t surprise us that this scribe is so often vilified. If you assumed, like I did, that the scribe had ulterior motives, a more insidious agenda, covert plans -- you aren’t alone. Remember that Mark – the earliest of our gospels – that Mark was the first to put this strand of the Jesus’ stories into his writing . . . and Mark made it clear, this scribe was a good inquisitive man.
Now jump ahead a few years . . . move ahead to when Matthew and Luke got hold of this same story. They changed the scribe from the truth-seeking learner to the sinister scoundrel, from the good to the bad. They did what is done throughout the gospels, they used this scribe as the antagonist . . . but that’s not how the story started. The scribe really did want to hear what Jesus had to say. And . . . and the scribe in our story agreed with Jesus saying that we should “love God and neighbor” – he told Jesus he was right. I find it more than a bit ironic that this passage calling us to love our neighbors (all of them) . . . that this passage about love was so quickly twisted around to do just the opposite -- and maligns the neighbor.
That, of course is a common challenge in scripture. In the gospels, the religious leaders of the Jews become the scapegoats for all that’s wrong in the world . . . and those stories have been used to justify utterly atrocious crimes against Jews in general over the centuries. The basis for this hate is not only obviously hideous . . . it’s also ill-founded. First, the battling between Jesus and many of the religious, was not some generalized generic feud . . . it was a specific struggle for the heart of the faith of the Jews. It was an internal fight among people all within the house of Israel. It should be no surprise that both the main antagonists AND protagonists in the gospels were Jews. After all, it was a fight among the Jews . . . a civil war of the faith, if you will. The suggestion that portraying some of the first century Jews as being the ones who brought down Jesus (in places like Mel Gibson’s soon to be released “The Passion”) as somehow being anti-Semitic is ludicrous. It is simply the way an internal struggle works. In a civil war, both the good and the bad come from the same country . . . so it is in an internal battle over the faith.
It’s also a mistake to suggest that the gospels are a blanket condemnation on the religious leadership . . . and no I don’t say this because in my own very little way I fit into this category of people. I say it because, as much as it is a common scriptural misconception, it just isn’t true. Go back and read the Bible.
Certainly the gospel writers are clear about the hypocrisy of SOME of the faithful, especially those SOME who try to box in and legislate the faith instead of living it. Just before this morning’s reading in Mark, it was SOME of the Sadducees who tried to trip up Jesus with a fictitious seven times married woman. And before that, it was SOME Pharisees and SOME Herodians trying to corner Jesus with their debate over taxes. And in today’s reading, it was ONE scribe who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment. What a terrible disservice we do when we lump all people in together, for good or for bad.
Love God with all you are, everything you have . . . and your neighbor too. What a great passage on the day we welcome new members. This one scribe liked what he had heard Jesus saying, so he asked which law – which of the ten or the 613 or the commentary on all that law, which is the greatest? And before we’re too quick to judge the Israelites for their dependence on so much legislation . . . we would do well to remember that there are an estimated 35 million laws on the books in the United States.
No matter . . . This one scribe really wanted to know which was the greatest, which law superceded all else, what was the ultimate legal claim for living in faith. We know the answer; it’s no surprise. And it wouldn’t have shocked any of those listening to Jesus some two thousand years ago, either. The words Jesus gave weren’t his own . . . they came right out of the Torah, in Deuteronomy 6:5 where the Israelites were instructed to love God above all else . . . and he linked it to Leviticus 19:18’s instruction to love neighbor as self. (Willimon)
This scribe asked Jesus which law is the most important. And Jesus said love. He said to love God and neighbor. And then we quickly see that it’s not so simple. We see how quickly “love” got distorted. Even the writers of scripture couldn’t keep it straight.
We see how quickly it can all gets twisted around and we can move from love to hate, from compassion to judgment, from a broad-minded embrace to an exclusionist club.
We talk much in this church about the inclusion of people of varieties of color, race, gender, physical ability, and background.
And I do believe it’s right for us to find that commonality among all people . . . to make our welcome to all and especially to each one utterly clear. And yet, there is an even greater challenge of inclusion and offering of true love than that. Probably the most difficult people to treat as neighbor are those who do not think like we do. How challenging it is for those who are not of like mind to embrace one another . . . knowing our great difference of thought . . . and still love each other despite our lack of common understanding. Love God . . . and love neighbor. This is a good passage for this morning . . . for a day we welcome new members in our midst. A reminder of what it means to be in relationship . . . to be with people . . . all individuals – individuals seeking to bind ourselves together in our common faith . . . and yet a faith as varied as there are people in our midst . . . to link ourselves, like the scribe, as those seeking together the truth . . . looking to that which is authentic and real. And that’s how we come to this table . . . a people of diverse thought, made one through the one we would call our lord and savior . . . made one in our reaching out for our God . . . made one by our God who would reach to us, and offer us love first.