Based on Mark 12:28-34 and the book of Ruth
At the beginning of the service, everyone was invited to wear a name tag – not with their own name, but with the name of someone, living or dead, who was an inspiration to them; their `saint’.
Jesus was becoming a nuisance. It wasn’t enough that he taught in the surrounding towns and villages, healed the sick, fed the people, challenged the authority of the leaders, but recently he had arrived in Jerusalem, on the eve of the Passover. He caused a disturbance in the temple, much to the chagrin of the chief priests, the scribes, the elders. He spoke in parables until they realized the joke was on them. The Pharisees had a go at him, trying to stump him on a question of taxes. He bested them at their own game. Then the Sadducees presented a complex situation of a widow of seven brothers – whose wife would she be in the afterlife (which they didn’t believe in anyway). Jesus took the conversation to a whole new level.
The scribe had been watching, listening, trying to figure Jesus out. He offered a question – one born not of spite or trickery, but of hope perhaps; a question which would cut through the contemptuous prattle of those who loved to hear themselves talk, to the heart of the matter.
“What do you say is the greatest commandment?” he asks. Jesus responds with simple and powerful words: Love the one God with all your being, and love your neighbour as yourself.
In the first instance, Jesus quotes the Shema, a Hebrew “creed” from Deuteronomy 6:4–5. This statement of God being one, and the commandment for us to love God, was considered central to Judaism.
Jesus also quotes Leviticus 19:18 about how we are to love our neighbours. It is intriguing that he does not include verse 17 which suggests that this love can be confined only to our own community; by leaving this verse out, Jesus suggests that love for neighbour includes everyone – indeed, all of creation. This is not the only occasion where Jesus quotes the scriptures of his tradition, but leaves out any reference that excludes those from a different religion or ethnicity.
Beyond that, Jesus reminds us of the need to love ourselves. One can interpret “love your neighbour as yourself” to mean “as much as” but the closer translation is more “in the same way as.” The implication is that healthy self –love will help us love our neighbours. If we cannot love the shadow part of ourselves it will come out as hatred toward someone else.
Please note what the greatest commandment is not. It is not `You must be Jewish, or you must be Christian, or Muslim. The greatest commandment is not `don’t let the foreigners in’, or `Thou shalt lower taxes.’ It is not `get all you can for yourself’, it’s not `stimulate the economy.’
It’s Love. It’s Love. It’s that simple and it’s that difficult.
Theologian Walter Brueggemann in his book “Prayer for a Privileged People” writes:
We pray as often as we meet, that we might “perfectly love you”.
Indeed, we have been commanded from the beginning,
to love you with all our hearts and all our souls
and all our minds and all our strength.
We have pledged to love, pledged in our prayers and in our baptism,
in our confirmation and with our best resolve.
But we confess… we love you imperfectly;
we love you with a divided heart,
with a thousand other loves that are more compelling,
with reservation and qualifications, and passion withheld and devotion impaired…
He says all these things, not I think, to make us feel terrible about ourselves, but to wake us up to the fact that love isn’t some abstract concept but it’s a demanding and difficult and courageous way of life which affects how we live in community, in communion with all other living beings. If we don’t live out of love, we live out of some other emotion that can take us on a soul –damaging journey.
During this past week, while scrolling through the wonderful world of Facebook, where I try to keep somewhat connected with family and friends far and wide, I was distressed to read some very hateful and distorted messages regarding Muslims. Most distressing is that the post was by someone who is dear to me.
I had already previously tried to `correct’ their point of view, gently but clearly – obviously to no affect. As the day went on I found myself caught in a web of negativity – and I had to literally pray my way out of it.
I indeed had to love God with all my strength, I found myself singing/praying as vacuumed the floor – “May I be filled with loving kindness, may I be well, may I be peaceful and at ease and may I be happy.” And for the other I sang, “May you be filled with loving kindness, may you be well, may you be peaceful and at ease and may you be happy.”
We can slip so easily into self-righteousness rather than self-love. Pointing out the fault of the `other’ isn’t nearly as effective in creating change as we might hope. Sometimes, what we need is a story.
The biblical story of Ruth was written as a corrective to a sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that was growing within the Hebrew community. It was forbidden to marry outsiders, those foreigners, those second-class people of the surrounding tribes. And so the story was told of Naomi who found comfort and welcome in the land of Moab – the land of the foreigner, and of Ruth, her daughter-in-law who showed love and loyalty to her. Ruth, the Moabite, became the great grandmother of Israel’s favourite king. Today, perhaps she would be a Muslim.
This is also a story about choosing life and love, when death blows your world apart. It’s a story about how dependant we really are on others to be make us who we are.
There is great advice in Paul’s letter to the Philippians 4:8. He closes his letter by saying to them, “ Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
You have a name tag on you, – I invite you to find one other person and share with them why you chose the name you did, and why this person is important to you, what in their life would you like to cultivate more in your own living? What is the admirable, excellent or praiseworthy thing about your saint? How can they help you choose love?
(Lovely conversation followed as people spoke to one another about the `saints’ they carried in their hearts, and what a difference they had made in their lives.)