5 Pentecost B—7/14/19
Deuteronomy 30:11-14; Colossians 1:11-14; Luke 10:25-37
Pr. Scott Kramer
Did you see the Pearls Before Swine comic in yesterday’s paper?
Rat: I think the world’s religions are right. The key to life is to love other people.
Goat: Do you think you can do that?
Rat: Yes…Except the annoying ones. Those I’ll hit with a stick.
Goat: I don’t remember that in scripture.
Rat: Yes, you only have to love the friendly ones.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Did you notice how Jesus took a question that was all about the religious man’s self-interest and turned it into a conversation about the one thing that our Christian faith is about?–God’s love for all.
The religious scholar comes off as a bad guy in this story but he’s not. He speaks for millions of Christians over the centuries who go to church and follow Christian doctrine as a form of spiritual life insurance.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is simple: There is nothing you can do to inherit God’s love. A free gift is not something that can be earned!
The life of faith is not about earning anything. It is about learning, not earning. Especially, it’s about learning to ask better questions. Instead of, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus invites us to ask, “What does Christian love look like, and how can I deepen my understanding of—and commitment to—the practice of that love?”
The connection between fully loving God and loving people we fear or despise seems to us, most of the time, to be an impossible ideal. The writer of the book of Deuteronomy seems to understand this but doesn’t allow it to become an excuse:
This commandment that I’m commanding you today isn’t too much for you, it’s not out of your reach. It’s not on a high mountain—you don’t have to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level and explain it before you can live it. And it’s not across the ocean—you don’t have to send sailors out to get it, bring it back, and then explain it before you can live it. No. The word is right here and now—as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. Just do it!
–Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (The Message)
It’s this teaching that Jesus may have had in mind when a man approached him, and asked, “And just who is my neighbor?”
Luke describes the man as “Seeking to justify himself…” But knowing from personal experience how hard it can be sometimes even to love friends and family, we might have a little compassion for the man. I don’t know about you, but knowing this commandment to love, I nevertheless am almost constantly seeking to justify myself! “Surely some people are more worthy of my love than others. Surely there are limits to love! My circumstances make me an exception.”
The man who approached Jesus, too, was very familiar with the commandment to love. But—like the rest of us—he had been “brainwashed” from an early age by family, friends, and religious teachers to form categories: who’s in, who’s out, who’s acceptable, who’s not. In fact, over many centuries, by the time Jesus emerged on the scene, elaborate rules had been developed among religious people to determine who fell into one of two categories: “clean” and “unclean.”
Turns out that “loving the neighbor” was, well…complicated. If you ate certain foods, you were unclean. If you were a woman menstruating, you were unclean. If you had a disease, you were unclean. If you were a foreigner or practiced a different religion, you were unclean.
That’s just the beginning of a very long list, and the list-keeping continues today, especially along the lines of sexuality, race, and country of birth. Love God with all your heart, and soul, and strength, and mind—except, as Rat puts it, the annoying ones. “Hit them with a stick”—maybe not literally, but at least put distance between “us” and “them” through rules and laws and attitudes and traditions that support “me and mine.”
I was with a number of you at the Pride Parade a couple of weeks ago. Fundamentalist Christians always show up to protest, and this year was no exception. There they were with signs, warning those of us who are Christians that we are all going to hell because of our support for the LGBTQ+ community (“Unclean!!”). Well, behind our Lutheran contingent were the Satanists–yes, they’re there every year, as well! At one point several of the sign-wielding Christians and a few of the Satanists faced off, shouting at each other.
It’s sobering when those who claim not to worship the God of Love show more compassion for those whom society fears and despises than many Christians. Not much has changed since Jesus’ day.
The law of love is simple. Obedience can be hard. “Creating distance” between ourselves and others is our human strategy for justifying our failure to obey—or even wanting to obey—the law of love. Waging war, for example, depends on it!
It might start as simply as thinking, “Love everyone? That’s impossible!” And so, over the course of a lifetime, because it’s “impossible,” we lower the bar until loving others means nothing more than loving people who think like me, look me, and act like me. Or, just as likely, we create heroes and saints—surrogates–to do what we say we can’t do. We admire from a distance the Mother Theresas and Martin Luther Kings, or pastors, or others to do what we can’t—or won’t—do.
But our reading pushes back against our need to create distance: 11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. 12It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 13Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” 14No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.
In the “Pearls Before Swine” comic, Rat got one thing right: “The key to life is to love other people.” It’s just one law, one commandment, but one that makes all the difference to how we live our own life, and how we treat other people. The practice of such love is not easy. But it’s not far off. Jesus’ word to us is the same as to the man who sought to justify himself: Loving others is not something that anyone can do for us. Rather, through doing the hard work of loving others who are not like “me” we just may begin to discover for ourselves the deep truth of Jesus’ promise:
“Do this, and you will live!”