by Rev. Scott Summerville
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I wish to read something to you today from a dusty old book I came across. These words are taken from the law code of one of the Semitic tribes of the ancient near East; they were written down somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 years ago. The words are slightly archaic, not quite in the idiom of our times, but if you listen closely, you will have no trouble following their meaning:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field to its very border, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God. “You shall not steal, nor deal falsely, nor lie to one another.
And you shall not swear by my name falsely, and so profane the name of your God: I am the LORD. “You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob your neighbor. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning. You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.
You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.
You shall not go up and down as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand forth against the life of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
You shall not hate your sister or your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor….
You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the children of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
Those words were written down on animal skins or papyrus or whatever served as paper back in those days, and they have been preserved to this very day; in fact, as you may have surmised, these words are straight out of the Bible, from the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, that is, the first five books of the Bible.
You may have noticed something else as these words were read – that the last part: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” are the words that Jesus quoted from this old law book, when they asked to declare what is the greatest commandment in the law:
Matthew 22:35b-39: “……they asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The core of Jesus message is the same thing as the core of the Torah; the heart of the gospel and the heart of Torah are this simple message: you shall love the Lord your God from your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” But if we listen closely to the words that I read a moment ago from that old book, we will notice that “loving your neighbor” is very specific.
Anyone can claim to love people in general or to love their neighbor in the abstract, but where Jesus was coming from, love is always specific, and love is always connected to justice. The Torah, the law of the Jews that Jesus was quoting from, did not say, “Why cannot we all just get along?” The Torah did not say, “Love everybody and everything will be all right.” The Torah lays out a whole set of specific things that are required of God’s people:
Do not steal from your neighbor, lie about your neighbor, or cheat your neighbor in a business transaction. Do not mock or disrespect the blind or the deaf. If your neighbor stands trial, if your neighbor’s life is at stake, testify for your neighbor, if you have knowledge that can save her or him. Be just and impartial in your judgments. Do not seek vengeance or bear grudges against others.
This love that the Torah talks about is not just an emotion, a good feeling; it is a way of living in relation to other people. Did you notice also that, in that ancient code of law, loving your neighbor involves some special obligations toward immigrants, laborers, and the poor?
What does it say: Consider the poor when you gather in your crops, and always leave behind sufficient food for the poor and the sojourner. (The sojourner is the migrant, the stranger in the community.) Do not oppress your neighbor…… if you hire someone to work for the day, pay them when the day is over, do not wait until the morning. (the poor person needs their bread now.) You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.
In this code of law which Jesus quotes from, this commandment to love your neighbor is not about warm feelings; it is about honest, just, compassionate relationships, where the poor and the vulnerable are not abused, taken advantage of, or simply forgotten. In the Torah, and in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot separate love and justice.
I do not usually put cartoons in the Sunday bulletins, but you may have noticed that there is am cartoon today in with the bulletin announcements. It is one that caught my eye recently. A man begs on the sidewalk, but instead of holding up an tattered piece of cardboard with an appeal for help, the person on the sidewalk holds up a mirror, so that each person passing by sees himself or herself as the one with their butt on the cold pavement, desperate, hungry. It is a very Biblical cartoon.
Love is so easy to talk about in generalities; so easy to preach about. Love in action means sleepless nights and being willing to take on the pain of others.
Being with Eben Adom and his wife and daughter this past month, I have been so moved by the way his pain and suffering were taken in and held by his dear ones. A thousand hurts and indignities he suffered as his health failed, but never alone, day or night – never alone.
Love in action – love in action – is hard.
I have been deeply moved by the saga of Eric, Sam’s nephew, who lived all his life with chronic illness until his death last week. The spirit and courage of this young man have been so remarkable. Through it all his family was there sharing his pain, encouraging his spirit and being themselves encouraged by him – all those years – all those years of shared love and pain.
Love in action is hard.
Love in action is full of inconveniences.
I don’t know what time our volunteers got up yesterday morning to head down to Far Rockaway, but it is safe to say most of us were still sleeping when they embarked. It is not convenient to lose a Saturday; there is always so much to do just to take care of one’s own business. Love in action means added stress and an inconvenience – and who does not already have enough of that?
Ask Rev. Frank Schaeffer about the inconveniences of love! All he wanted to do was to perform the wedding ceremony for his child, his son – who as a gay man loved another man – they wanted to commit their lives to one another, so quietly, without fanfare, Frank performed the wedding ceremony for his child – but that simple act of love done in celebration of love brought on Frank’s head an whole heap of trouble. It is not comfortable to stand up for justice and be called a trouble-maker.
There are always so many reasons why this moment is not quite the right moment to love.
There are always so many reasons why this moment is not quite the right moment to forgive.
There are always so many perfectly good reasons why this moment is not quite the right moment to serve.
That dusty old book we read from every time we gather has a constant theme: the theme is NOW.
Now is the time to love.
Now is the time to forgive.
Now is the time to get out of bed and serve.
Now is the time to stand up for what is right and just.
Now is the time to love the neighbor and to grasp the deep spiritual truth that I am my neighbor and my neighbor is me, and to deny my neighbor is to deny my own being, my own humanity, my own soul.
Grace and peace to you.