TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “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.” Mark 12:28-31
That does not mean there are no other commandments or that other commandments should be ignored. It does mean, however, that there is a hierarchy among biblical commandments. In other words, all commandments are not equal and they have never been so treated. For reasons that still escape me, sexual purity stands for many believers near the pinnacle of our moral hierarchy. I know whereof I speak. I grew up in a church that refused to perform or recognize marriages in which one or both partners had previous marriages ending in divorce. I know first hand the pain our “doctrinal position,” inflicted upon such individuals and their children. And though we were outwardly civil to single mothers, it was clear to me (and surely to them) that we viewed them with a mixture of pity and contempt. They served as cautionary tales for our girls and objects of our condescending charity. More than anything else, they allowed us to glory in our moral superiority.
According to Jesus, neither adherence to standards governing sexual behavior nor any other standard of conduct hold sway. For Jesus, love for God and love for the neighbor determine the shape of our obedience to all other commandments. This “great” commandment is the loadstar. I use the singular intentionally because, in fact, the two great commandments to love God and love the neighbor are actually the same command. Because the Word of God is the Word made flesh, because our neighbor is the only true image of God we have, the only way to love God is by loving our neighbor.
Of course, we all know that “love” is a vacuous and sentimental word in our vernacular. How much meaning can a word have when I can use it both to express my devotion to my wife and my craving for rum raisin ice cream? For the biblical witnesses, however, love has real content. Paul tells us “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:4-7. Love that is godly is always directed toward what the rest of the world regards as “the least” of human beings. By this we mean the homeless, the hungry, the prisoner, the sick and all other marginalized people. Matthew 25. Love does not regard national identity, borders, citizenship, class distinctions or racial divisions. Luke 10:25-37.
The most striking thing about Jesus’ love is that it is extended even-no, especially-to sinners. We are in the habit of thinking about sin strictly in moral terms, but that is not the way it is used in the gospels. The term “sinner” is not a label that God slaps on people. It is rather a label that people slap on one another. More specifically, the term “sinner” is one that the religious, social and political elite stamped on those they deemed threatening, unclean or merely useless. Its purpose was to keep people in their place, especially those at the base of the social hierarchy. For Jesus, forgiveness of sin is less about pardoning offenses against some moral code than it is an erasure of this insulting, hurtful, discriminatory label that deprived so many people of their humanity, put a stumbling block in the way of their discovering God’s love for them and reinforced the machinery of oppression. It is in this context that we must understand Paul’s radical assertion that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…[and that all are] now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:23-24. Where all are sinners, nobody is any longer in a position to claim righteousness over against anyone else. Because righteousness in God’s eyes is a free gift, no one can lay claim to it on the basis of merit or use it as a branding iron to mark others as “sinners.” Nothing remains other than for us to love as we have been loved, to “Throw out [one’s soul] full force on another soul,” as the poet, Elizabeth Barret Browning says.
How, then, does one love one’s neighbor as oneself? Here are what I think are some helpful guiding principles.
1. God’s priority, and therefore the disciple’s priority, is the “sinner,” that is, the persons our culture seeks to exclude and deems the “least.” That does not mean God hates people that are rich, white, successful or powerful. It is, however, a recognition that, like the rich young man in Jesus’ parable, many of us have a lethal addiction to privilege. Not only is that addiction oppressing the poor, but it is also strangling our own souls, hardening our hearts and preventing us from fully experiencing and practicing love. We need to recognize that the liberation of the oppressed is our own salvation as well.
2. “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12. That means I need to get inside the skin of people that cross my path and see the world as they see it. That requires a lot of non-judgmental listening, something that I find hard to do. I often wind up having to hear a lot of things about the world and about myself that I would rather not know. But I cannot really love another person until I can empathize with him or her.
3. Love must sometimes be tough. Jesus frequently had hard words for those who opposed him and even for his own disciples. That is because he loves us too much to let us continue in our self destructive ways. Love must often speak prophetically against individual and collective acts of injustice, selfishness and bigotry. Such speech is frequently met with opposition and resentment. That is OK. Love is not about reciprocity. It aims at healing the neighbor and we all know that the medicine we need is not always pleasant to take.
4. HOWEVER: Never forget that the neighbor is a person loved by God and created in God’s image. That image is not always easy to discern, but it must be taken on faith that it remains in the most unappealing of individuals. The great commandment extends also to the enemy. Matthew 5:43-48. Love depends on my believing that all human beings (myself included) are capable of transformation. It also depends on my willingness to be transformed, to accept that the cause of hostility might well rest with me rather than my enemy and that I might be the one in need of forgiveness. There is a difference between speaking hard but life giving words and simply venting your spleen on people you can’t stand.
5. Love means taking risks. It’s dangerous. When you extend your hand in friendship, you might get a nail driven through it. When you stand with sinners, you can be judged as one. When you speak up for those who have no voice, you can be silenced-perhaps permanently. But if Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection teach us anything, it is that love is worth the risk.
Here is a poem about risky love by Elizabeth Barret Browning.
We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life: and when we bear
Our virtue onward most impulsively,
Most full of invocation, and to be
Most instantly compellant, certes, there
We live most life, whoever breathes most air
And counts his dying years by sun and sea.
But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth
Throw out her full force on another soul,
The conscience and the concentration both
Make mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole
And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,
As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.
Source: This poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning is in the public domain. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was held in high regard throughout her lifetime surpassing nearly all other female poets of the English speaking world eclipsing even the work of her poet husband, Robert Browning. She had a formative influence upon American poet, Emily Dickinson who hung her portrait in her bedroom. Browning was highly skilled in multiple languages reading voraciously the Greek and Latin classics as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Though the beneficiary of a privileged upbringing, she was a passionate advocate for the oppressed on the issues of slavery, child labor and the exploitation of colonized peoples. You can read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.