Proper 25, Year A
White American middle-class churches are particularly prone, it seems, to an assumption that spirituality, and Christianity in particular or by extension, is primarily about interiority -- about feeling a certain way about God, about other people, and about one's self. This Sunday's texts put the lie to that. In the first-century Mediterranean world, "love" was not a vague warm feeling toward someone, but a pattern of action -- attachment to a person backed up with behavior. When Jesus, citing Deuteronomy 6:5, says, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," he's spelling out what is implied in calling God "Lord," and what is stated in Deuteronomy 6:4: when God is Lord, that position is filled; no others need apply, as all our faculties are fully devoted to God's service.
And when Jesus cites Leviticus 19:18 saying, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself" -- a commandment which Jesus says is of equal importance with the first -- I'm with Daniel Harrington (with whom I often disagree on other points) that "there is no hint in the Bible of the modern psychological emphasis on the need for self-esteem and the idea that one must love oneself before loving others" (from p. 315 of his commentary on Matthew). Self-esteem is a fine thing, to be sure, and people have benefited a great deal from the insights of modern psychology, but these interior emotional states just weren't a focus in first-century Mediterranean cultures.
So what does this command mean, then? The earliest Christian commentary on this text after the gospels, namely James 2:1-17, will be a major help in figuring that out. When Jesus said "love your neighbor as yourself," he was essentially saying, "treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood" -- that is, as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honor and special care. You may notice that this passage in James treats "faith" and "love" almost as synonyms; while American churches tend to read both as interior mental or emotional states, in first-century Mediterranean cultures true faith and true love are both matters of affiliation backed up with consistent action, of treating people with respect and enacting rather than merely professing compassion.
In other words, the kinds of facts we see laid out here show just how far we have to go in loving our neighbors as as our own family. Bread for the World is right: we have, by our action and our inaction, built a world in which the deck is stacked against the poor, and serving God with our heart, soul, and mind means that we are called to bring everything we've got -- our voice and our political power as well as our financial resources -- to bear in living out God's mission of reconciliation and redemption for all the world. It's true that our sins, things done and left undone, have built a world in which coming from a family or a region trapped in extreme poverty means a death sentence issued before birth, a world built around the kind of favoritism that the Letter of James condemns writ large.
But it's also true that Christ came to save the world from sin, and Christ is both calling and empowering us to do what it takes to eliminate extreme poverty in this generation. That means not only sending direct aid to feed people in places like Haiti, but also working to end U.S. policies that dump highly subsidized rice on the Haitian market, creating the hunger we're supposedly dedicated to ending. That means making trade fair, creating economic opportunities for children around the world that we want for our own children. That means working for educational opportunities around the world so that every child has the kind of chance to succeed that we want for our own children.
For that reason, our text for this Sunday from the Hebrew bible seems especially well-chosen:
God said, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.”
-- Exodus 22:21-27
These days especially, the temptation seems especially strong to churches and their members to reduce the Gospel to one point, and for some it's the more specific the better -- the better for use as a very specific litmus test, I suppose. In this Sunday's gospel, Jesus is given a wide-open invitation to do the same, and he declines. Asked what one commandment is most important, he gives two -- and not just any two. The two commandments he gives demand nothing less than heart, soul, and mind -- in other words, every part of a person capable of valuing something -- and that those capacities be devoted to God and to every neighbor (and for who would be exempt from the category of "neighbor" in Jesus' mind, I can think of no better place in Jesus' teaching to turn than the "Parable of the Good Samaritan"). There's a point of Jesus' morality that I derive from this that I think is a timely one in our current climate of polarization:
Despite the frequency with which people turn to Jesus to find out to whom they're NOT obligated, which people under which circumstances are out of the reach of God's love and therefore are beyond the call of God's people to ministry, Jesus' call will compel each one of his followers to take the fullest extent of God's love to the furthest reach of that love, to every person whom God made. In other words, we may as well take the energy we devote to coming up with a clever question to exempt us and give it to the call of love that is before us. The book of Exodus is spot-on in presenting this as a matter of national security; there is no better way to undermine the agenda of terrorist groups who would drum up hate against us and make widows and orphans of our families than to love our enemies, overcoming evil with good. And in citing the two greatest commandments, Jesus has shown us also that this is a matter of spiritual fidelity as well, that in serving our neighbors around the world as we would our own flesh and blood, our lives stand as testimony to the lordship of the one God who made us all. There is no call more consuming, and none more fulfilling.
Thanks be to God!
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Bravo on a great post! I have been reading your blog for a month and a half and have made a contribution towards the wonderful work that you are doing. I was excited particularly by this week's post. The tension between preaching an individual, interior faith vs. an outward looking faith is always a challenge in our culture. Many peopel want what will make them feel good. You're right - this text challenges the preacher to stay the course and to preach the gospel as Jesus did. Thank you.
Posted by: Greg Cole | Oct 22, 2005 8:31:04 AM
Wow! Excellent post!I especially like the language used. Truly inspiring, thanks
Posted by: Ellen J. Potter | Sep 6, 2012 10:30:09 AM