Love Thy Neighbor (A sermon from Mark 12:28-34)

The question of the scribe is not unusual at all. It is the kind of question typical of the kind of things that the teachers of the law discussed and debated in those days. They had come to a consensus that there were 613 commands in the Torah (the law), so naturally they would try to find some way to summarize them or get to the essence and core of the law. Here the scribe is inquiring as to which of the commands is the chief command, the most important command that takes priority over all the others. It’s a legitimate question.

In response Jesus first references the opening words of the Shema, known as such by the first word of the Hebrew text of Deut. 6:4. It is a call to complete devotion to Yahweh – to love God completely with one’s total being. That Jesus appeals to this commandment would have been a surprise to no one. It was recited by faithful Jews daily. Now, what would have been a surprise is what Jesus says next. Jesus refers to a second command found in Lev. 19:18 – to love your neighbor as yourself – which he says is of equal importance. Jesus insists that this second command in on the same level and bears the same authority as the first. While all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) include this scene, and though each description differs in its details, the one thing they all emphasize is that Jesus places these two commands on an equal footing and regards them of equal importance. In Mark’s version Jesus says, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (12:31b). Luke connects both commands without a break (10:27). And in Matthew Jesus says, “All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments” (22:40). So according to Jesus, these two commandments are inseparable and constitute the heart and soul of what God expects.

The writer of 1 John makes this same connection and elaborates on it. He argues that we express our love for God by our love of neighbor. He says that if we do not love others, then we do not really love God or know God, because God is love. Love is who God is. When we love others, he says, it is God living in us. If I do not love others, then I do not love God, regardless of what I think or profess or believe.

In Mark’s version of this story the scribe who asks the question functions differently than he does in Matthew and Luke. In Matthew and Luke the lawyer asks the question to put Jesus to the test. He functions as an antagonist. But in Mark’s version he is not an enemy of Jesus at all, but a genuine seeker. In Mark’s version the scribe actually affirms Jesus’s response. The scribe says, “You are right, Teacher” and then he repeats the two commands that Jesus linked together, but then adds a fresh insight. He says, “this [loving God and loving neighbor as yourself] is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” A whole burnt offering, by the way, is where a sacrifice was completely consumed by fire. None of the sacrifice was given to the priests; it was completely given to the Lord.

Now, the insight that the scribe makes is nothing really new. It’s a theme reflected in a number of Old Testament passages. Hosea 6:6 reads: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” There is a powerful exposition of this theme in the first chapter of Isaiah, where the prophet denounces the people’s superficial worship. He says, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? . . . I have had enough of burnt offerings and rams.” Then he calls them to repentance. He says, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” The truly vulnerable ones in that society were primarily widows, orphans, and aliens (immigrants). The prophet says that true religion is about loving others, especially those who are taken advantage of by powerful people. The prophet says, “Rescue them from their oppressors. Defend them against those who would treat them harshly. Plead their case, speak for them and stand with them. This is true worship.”  

This is what God wants of us, brothers and sisters. It doesn’t matter how strongly we believe our doctrine, or how emotionally uplifting our worship, or intellectually stimulating our Bible studies—if any of that doesn’t translate into a loving, compassionate lifestyle that inspires and empowers us to identify with and care for the downtrodden ones of the world then it’s all religious baloney. It doesn’t matter how many prayers I pray, songs I sing, sermons I preach or hear, creeds I recite, or worship services I lead or attend, if I can’t love my neighbor as myself, (If I can’t love my sister or brother in the human family) then my faith is useless and meaningless.

After the scribe responds to Jesus in such an affirmative way, Jesus says, “You have answered wisely. You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God is where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Why does Jesus say, “You are not far from the kingdom of God?” Because it’s not enough to just profess love. We have to do love. We have to practice love. Love is something we do, not profess. Authentic faith in Jesus always involves faithfulness to the way of Jesus, which of course, is the way of love. James expounded on this when he said that faith without works is dead. Faith without works of mercy and justice is dead. It’s not faith at all. It has no value apart from works and expressions of love. One commentator defined love of neighbor as unconditional regard for a person or persons that shape our behaviors toward them in such a way that we help them to become what God wants them to be.

In Luke’s version the lawyer is not a seeker, but an antagonist who is trying to trap Jesus. In response to Jesus’ insistence on loving one’s neighbor the lawyer in Luke asks, “Who is my neighbor?” and Luke tells us he was trying to justify himself. So Jesus tells him a story, where the perceived enemy of the Jews, a Samaritan, is the good neighbor who loves his perceived enemy, a Jew. Jesus makes the very one this Jew probably hated the hero in the story. Today, in our context, the hero could well be an undocumented person. One of the great ironies in Christianity today is that some of us use our Christianity to avoid loving our neighbor, thus our very faith (Christianity) becomes an obstacle to loving God. We do what Israel did described in Isaiah one and think our worship or what we believe will get us by. One of the ways we justify our failure to love our neighbor is by limiting and restricting who our neighbor is. One woman in a Southern Baptist Church in Alabama was interviewed by a writer of the Washington Post in July of this year. She said that love your neighbor means your American neighbor. She also said that the biblical instruction to “welcome the stranger” means the “the legal immigrant stranger.” Now, most of us are not that blatantly nationalistic in our reading of the Bible. Most of us are more subtle about it, but we know how to twist the text so that it means something different than what it says. We even read the Bible in ways that make us feel good about hating our neighbor. Just listen to what some popular Christian leaders are saying about undocumented persons and other minorities and groups they are inclined to scapegoat. We project our fears and angst onto these groups and justify our hate by limiting who our neighbor is and then we even convince ourselves that God doesn’t like them either.

Now lest you think I am positioning myself as someone so much better than the fear–mongering and hate-mongering Christians today, I have a pastoral confession to make. I struggle a lot with Jesus’ teaching to love my neighbor as myself. I have to admit to you that I have neighbors that I don’t like – I mean I really, really don’t like. I wish they would go away, and wouldn’t care much if they just dropped . . . well, out of the picture. Right now we have a number of Christian leaders and political leaders in our country, beginning at the very top, who are enabling a culture of hate and fear and prejudice that makes me sick – not just emotionally and spiritually sick, sometimes I even feel it physically. So how, in heaven’s name, do I love these people? How do I love people when I hate what they are doing, and dislike them so much?

Let me begin by telling you a story. It’s not my story. It’s from a book written by Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, titled Year of the Flood and is part of a trilogy. I heard the story from Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, a theologian who spoke at a conference I attended a few years ago. The context is a violent, ecologically degraded world in the future. Some people known as God’s Gardeners, a deeply religious and spiritual people, live in hidden rooftop gardens. They resist the powerful corporations that are destroying the earth, and they resist by cherishing and caring for what is left of creation. They believe a great disaster is coming, which they call the waterless flood. They are right about the flood. A virus nearly wipes out the earth’s human population. There are survivors, some of whom are dehumanized and mercilessly violent. The story is told by Toby, a woman who had been rescued from a brutal employer by the Gardeners. Toby tries to keep the sacred practices of the Gardeners alive, even though she is not sure she believes.

At the end of the year of the Flood, Toby captures a pair of violent criminals who had kidnapped and brutalized a young woman named Amanda, who had lived with the Gardeners as a teenager. She was funny and brave and a vital part of the community, then she was snatched away from them on the eve of the Gardener feast by these predators. After years of abuse, she is now broken and nearly dead, when she is rescued by Toby and another Gardener named Ren. The men who held her captive were bashed in the head and tied to a tree. Amanda and Ren hope that Toby will kill them. But what Toby does instead, is build a fire and make a pot of soup with which to celebrate the Feast of St. Julian and All Souls, a day to honor life in all its forms. Amanda who was terrorized and brutalized by these two men asks, “We are not going to share our food with them are we? These men who have been torturing me, we are not going to feed them are we?” Toby says, “We have to. It’s the feast of St. Julian and All Souls. It’s out of my hands. These are the demands of the day.” “What about tomorrow?” asks Amanda. Toby says that she doesn’t know about tomorrow, but today we are observing the feast. So she passes two cups of soup among everyone gathered, the brutalized and the brutalizers alike.

Dr. Paulsell who told this story makes the point that this opens a space for Toby, Ren, and Amanda to practice mercy, and to find out if they can stand it. Paulsell says, “Their experiment allows them to find out what it feels like to let those men live another day. Maybe, on the next day, when they do have to make a choice, they’ll let them live again. Or maybe not. You’ll have to read the trilogy to find out.” I never did read the trilogy so I can’t tell you how it turned out. I guess you will have to read it and tell me. I love what Toby says with regard to the feast. “I have to let them live. It’s out of my hands. These are the demands of the day.”

Hear me sisters and brothers. We have to love our neighbor. It’s out of our hands. These are the demands of the day. This is what our Lord demands. We don’t have a choice, that is, if we want to be followers of Christ. For many Christians today I don’t think the word “Christian” means being a follower of Jesus. It might mean believing the right things about Jesus, but it doesn’t mean do what Jesus says. If we are going to be followers of Jesus (and there are so called “Christians” today who are not) we have to do what Jesus says.

But how? How do we love like Jesus? I don’t know, but we have to find a way. I have started praying daily for the people I dislike so much daily. My prayer goes something like: Lord, I don’t know how to love these people I don’t like, so you will have to help me. I don’t know how to love them the way you do, so you are going to have to change me. I pray that you will touch their lives and my life in a way that would help us all to see that everyone is your child and needs to be loved.” I have to do this, because Jesus said to. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” If Jesus is my Lord, I don’t have a choice and you don’t either. Maybe by doing that I will create enough space for God’s love to change me.  

You know sisters and brothers, it’s hard to take, but all those not-so-good people that we dislike so much are God’s children too. And as difficult as it is for us to accept, God actually loves them just as much as God loves you or me. I think if more people understood what it really means to be a Christian, that to be a Christian you have to take Jesus seriously, they wouldn’t be Christians, which probably would not be such a bad thing. (You might read John 6 sometime where Jesus found a way to get rid of most of his followers).

By actually trying to do what Jesus says to do, we open up space for the Spirit of Love to spring to life and grow. In First Corinthians 13, that beautiful poetic piece on love, Paul says “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” The part about “believes all things” used to really puzzle me. Now I think I know what it means. Love believes that any person, no matter how violent, evil, deceitful, unfeeling, narcissistic, and egotistical can change. Love really believes that all people can ultimately be redeemed – that any person can change. Love believes all things. Love believes that. And at some point, if I can learn how to love like Jesus, I will believe that too. And maybe you will also. Or maybe not. The story is still unfolding.

Our good God, help us to be good like you and to love our neighbor as ourselves – especially those we dislike and hate what they do. Amen.


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