Wednesday, October 29, 2008

love of God and neighbor (matthew 22)

Jesus was not running for political office, but he had been in a debate with the Sadducees, one of the political parties of the day, the one who controlled access to the worship life of the people, and after he had endured all of that, someone else stepped up to the microphone, a Pharisee, these were the ones who wanted to control the understanding of the Bible for the people. Jesus admired these folks in some ways, and yes, he endured them in some others. One of the Pharisees, trained in the law of the scripture, had a question. To be clear, it was not a question born of curiousity, but a question designed to trip Jesus up. The whole exercise was an interrogation.

So, the question, which commandment in the law is the greatest? There are 613 commandments in the five books of the law. Which is the greatest? Putting aside the motive, it is an excellent question, and much of the gospels is occasioned by the asking of questions. Why is this woman suffering? Why was this man born blind? Who is the greatest of your servants? Who is my neighbor? What should I give to the government and what should I give to God? The two rabbis are having a conversation, and one asks the other a question. Which commandment in the law is the greatest?

Providence is involved in an exciting study with our friends at Temple Israel. Rabbi Murray Ezring taught last Sunday evening, it was a lively time to ask questions, and Dr. Bill Jeffries will teach this Tuesday evening. Several participants noted the convergence of our two faiths in a number of respects. Nowhere is this more true than in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus is asked a question, and in response he recites what is called, in Hebrew, the Shema: Hear O Israel, the Lord is One, and you shall love the Lord…

These are the most sacred words in the Jewish tradition. They are the first words a Jewish child is taught, and the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. A devout practicioner of Judaism is required to say the Shema twice a day. It is their affirmation of faith! In the Hebrew Bible, where the Shema is found, in Deuteronomy 6, there was further instruction:

Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away and when you lie down and when you rise. 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. (6. 4-9).

Rabbi Ed Feinstein comments on these words

"Write them upon the doorposts of your house...." What values are written on the walls of our home? If someone visited our home, what would they learn of us from the art on our walls, the books on our shelves, the notices tacked to our refrigerator?

"Tie them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes." To what purposes and ends do we invest your bodily and mental energies? What do we spend our time and strength doing? What energizes us? What exhausts us? What renews us?

"Talk about them, at home and away, morning and night...." What do we talk about? What concerns dominate our conversations and dialogues? With what tone of voice do we address the world? With what voice do we speak to those who share our home, our work, our neighborhood?

"Teach them to your children." What have we taught your children? What have we taught them about success, about the purpose and meaning of life? What have we shown them matters most to us -- the pursuit of prosperity or the practice of compassion? The acquisition of precious things or the sanctification of precious moments?

"Keep these words ... in our hearts." What preoccupies our thoughts? What do we worry about? What do we dream about? What do we hope for?

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul and your might." The theologian Paul Tillich observed that every person, believer or nonbeliever, has a "god." Our God, he taught, is the "object of our ultimate concern." So the Shema asks us: What do we love most in life? What is our god? The answer is no mystery.

"Just look back at the answers to all the other questions. The values and concerns that decorate our home, drive our work, color our words, shape our children and animate our thoughts, those values constitute our ultimate concerns. So what do we worship? What is our god?”

The beginning words, “Hear, O Israel” remind me of a simpler phrase: are we listening? Are we paying attention? Are we conscious of the direction that our path is taking? To say the shema is to refocus, to place God at the center, as a daily practice. I am aware that the ancient world of Judaism, the world that Jesus lived in, is not our world. We have more information flowing into our minds, more stimuli distracting us. With the secularization of western culture, we do not live in such a God-centered world. Unless we are in some kind of personal or national crisis, it is possible to live for long periods of time without thinking of God.

And so loving God is not as simple as it might seem. A first step might simply be getting to know who God is. On the next three Wednesday evenings, we will have a conversation about the nature of God, from a Christian perspective. Who is this God? Christians have a distinctive way of understanding God, one that differentiates us from our Jewish and Muslim friends. God can be known in three ways: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. On the next three Wednesday evenings we will explore who God is? And then on the fourth Wednesday evening we will reflect on a recently published book that is an unconventional and yet engaging take on who God is. The book is entitled The Shack. I will tell you that, for me, one of the lessons of the The Shack is that, in coming to know the God of the Bible, we will fall in love with God.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, Jesus said, quoting the law. He reminded the rabbi, this is the first and greatest commandment. But Jesus was not finished. He continued: a second commandment is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

This second commandment, again, was from the law, from the book of Leviticus actually. Jesus is asked for one commandment, but he gives two and he says that they are actually the same. To love God is to love our neighbor, and vice versa. This is all the more radical when we consider that Jesus insisted in the Sermon on the Mount, that those who love God and follow him are also called to love their enemies.

Two problems arise from this brief teaching of Jesus. First, we divorce these two great commandments at our peril. We love God but bear false witness against our neighbor---and the present political process we are in is but one symptom of this. Or we attempt to love our neighbor, without seeing the essential relationship with love for the God who created them.

The unity of these two commandments has profound implications. At a macro level, the survival of planet earth depends on the three traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, whose adherents comprise well over half of the earth’s population, returning to their core teachings. These faiths can be very clear about their differences while at the same time finding “common ground” in the great commandment: the love of God and the love of neighbor. This has meaning at a global level with human rights and at a local level with extending hospitality to the stranger.

A second problem arises in the understanding of what it means to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Here we expose the danger in our focusing all of our lives on God and our neighbor, to the exclusion of caring for ourselves. This can finally be self-destructive, and does not please God or help our neighbor. Rueben Job speaks of this as unhealthy self-denial. And so the Bible commands us to work and to rest (Sabbath), to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

I realize there is another way of seeing this, and it the opposite outcome. We live in a culture that really is all about the self, but underneath it is about selling us a product that is not about us, but about the well-being of those who profit from the product. And here greed leads also to the destruction of individuals and communities. When God and neighbor become less important, we lose our grounding. Someone has said, “when we cease believing in God, it is not that we believe in nothing. We believe in everything!”

We are in need of a teaching, a way of life that holds together love of God, neighbor, and self. And we confess that we have failed at this. Some have loved self to the exclusion of the neighbor, some have loved neighbor to the destruction of self, some have sought to love God and have abandoned their neighbors (we are so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good), some have sought to love neighbor and have seen God as an unnecessary abstraction. The way of Jesus, the law that Jesus lived and taught, was the way to wholeness, the integration of love of God and neighbor. One of the desert fathers in early Christianity used this image to teach about the love of God and neighbor:

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference... Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings.

As we move toward God, we move from the circumference, traveling along various paths toward the center. As we move closer to God, we naturally move closer to each other. And so passionate worship (love of God) naturally leads to risk-taking mission and service (love of neighbor). When we glorify God we are the body of Christ, serving others. The opposite is also true: As we move farther from God, we grow more distant from each other. As we read in I John, we cannot love God, whom we have never seen, if we do not love our neighbor, whom we have seen.

On these two commandments---loving God, loving our neighbor---Jesus said, hangs all of the law and the prophets. The unity of these two commandments is the key to understanding the whole Bible, and the living of the two commandments creates a community and a world in which peace, justice and freedom flourish.

Sources: Ed Feinstein, Synagogue 3000. Laceye Warner, “Loving God and Neighbor: Sustaining Pastoral Excellence" (Duke Divinity School). The New Interpreter’s Bible, “Matthew”. Rueben Job, Three Simple Rules.


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