Sermon for Oct. 25, 2020, Pentecost 21A
Video is here
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.”
Most Christians love it that Jesus summed up all 613 laws of the Hebrew Bible with the dual commands to love God and neighbor.
The fact that Jewish scholars of Jesus’ day, like Hillel, came to the same conclusion is not surprising because the prophets of Israel had prepared the ground for that conclusion. They had long pointed out the absurdity of offering God adoration (love), through sacrifice and ceremony, while at the same time neglecting justice to the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant.
The love of God, shown by religious veneration, is not legitimate, if the love of neighbor, in the forms of doing justice and acting compassionately, is neglected.
Micah famously asks if he should come before God with thousands of sacrifices, and concludes no: God has shown us, mortals, what is good and what God requires: to “do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6).
You might think that the simplicity of the dual commands to love God and neighbor were self-evident and obvious, and hence, uncontroversial. But, as they say, the devil is in the details.
Two issues make these simple commands anything but simple for us today. They are the loaded questions:
Who is the God we are expected to “love”?
And, similarly, Who is my neighbor to whom I am so obligated?
Who is the God We Must Love?
Let us take the God question first. Some scholars who study moral reasoning say that we, in the industrialized Western world, are likely to think about morality, what is good or bad, using primarily two criteria: what is fair, and what is caring, or, to put it negatively, what does not cause harm.
Other moral criteria, like sanctity (or purity) loyalty, and authority still play a role in telling us what is good, but they are subordinate to the criteria of fairness and not harming. This focus on these two criteria is a modern and primarily Western phenomenon. (See The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt)
Let me give an illustration. In former times, the moral criterion “authority” was far more important to people than it is to us today. If an authority figure, for example, the Bible says it or the Pope says it, or my Father says it, then it is right and good, and I am required to obey.
But we in the modern West have concluded that authorities can get it wrong. The Bible, we believe, is our wisdom tradition, which we take seriously, but we understand it as a human product with obviously cultural perspectives, for example about owning slaves and the subordinate role of women in church and society.
Similarly, some Popes, over the years, have been excellent but others have been horrible. Tyrants in power can do enormous evil. So, authority does not have the last word.
But, by contrast to the criterion of authority, fairness is important across the board. So is not causing harm.
When we become aware that a group of people have been treated unfairly or have been harmed, or both, we immediately conclude that we need to fix it somehow.
The Goodness(?) of “God”
The reason I bring this up is because this perspective of ours has created a problem in the way we understand God. In the past, when we put a lot of emphasis on authority, if God did something, we assumed that it must be right and good.
Now, please understand that when I say “if God did something” I mean if there is a story in the Bible in which God is described as doing something.
So if, in the story, God sent the plagues against the Egyptians, that was good. If God knocked down the walls of Jericho, then it was good.
But now, that way of looking at it does not work for us. The last plague on the Egyptians was the slaughter of all their firstborn.
How in the world could that be called good? Was it fair to those infants or their grieving mothers and fathers? Was it right to cause all that harm? No, we conclude. The ends do not justify the means.
And after the walls of Jericho fell, was it right that God commanded the slaughter of, as it says in the story,
“both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys”? (Joshua 6).
We would call that genocide; ethnic cleansing.
So, because our perspective on the moral importance of fairness and not harming is so important, we conclude that those stories about what God did or commanded to be done cannot be true. Our view of God has changed. As Christians, we have come to the conclusion that God must be at least as good and caring as Jesus was.
This is a big reason why the very idea of hell is so repulsive to me and many of us. The concept of eternal conscious torment seems unfair and harmful in the extreme. God is not like that. God is love.
Here is the point: when we hear that the greatest commandment is to love God, we must try to conceive of a God that is lovable. We conclude that although God is ultimately a mystery beyond human comprehension, the metaphors we use must be like Jesus’ metaphors for God: loving parent, good shepherd, welcoming father-of-prodigal-sons-and-daughters. That is the kind of God we can love.
So, how do we love God? By sacrifice and ceremony? No; According to the prophets and Jesus, who, remember, never went to the temple as an adult, except in opposition to it, we show love to God best by fulfilling the second command: by loving our neighbor.
The Neighbor Question
So, the only remaining question is, if we love God by loving our neighbor, who does that include? “Who is my neighbor” as the young ruler asked Jesus? To whom am I morally obligated?
This is a serious question, because here too, we have had to part company with the perspectives of the past. Every normal, healthy person understands their own extended family to be their neighbors who deserver their care.
Most people are happy to include all the people in their own ethnic group as their neighbors.
The majority of people include everyone in their own nation as their neighbors. They will contribute to the common purse and rush to the defense of the people in their own nation. Is that where it stops?
Jesus was famous for challenging the understanding of neighbor as a bounded set. He pushed the category, for Jews, to include Samaritans as neighbors — as he did when he told the parable we call the “Good Samaritan,” in response to that question, “Who is my neighbor?”
He also pushed the boundary of neighbor all the way to Roman soldiers and Canaanite women and children. In fact, it is hard to find any boundary on Jesus’ capacity to care for the well being of other humans. We progressive Christians talk about this a lot. We are often reminded of our need to be inclusive of “the other.”
Today, we realize that we must go beyond former generations in at least two ways. We now understand that the neighbors we are morally obligated to care for include the people who will be living on this planet after we are gone. Our children and grandchildren will inherit what we leave to them, including a climate in crisis.
There is real, measurable harm done because of our behavior on this planet, and if we do not change it will get worse for our descendants. NASA scientists tell us, for example, that
“parts of the western United States and Mexico, Brazil, and East Africa now face wildfire seasons that are more than a month longer than they were 35 years ago.”https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2315/study-fire-seasons-getting-longer-more-frequent/
People are losing their homes. Businesses are going up in flames. Some people die trying to escape; some die trying to control the fires. Great harm is being done. We are watching it happening right now in Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Arizona, and other states, and the trend lines indicate it is only getting worse.
Our neighbors are our descendants who will have to live on the planet in the conditions we helped to create. I believe we are morally obligated to do all that we can to address the climate crisis for their sake.
The other way in which we are becoming aware that the definition of neighbor needs to be expanded is the entire animal kingdom. Now we know that animals have emotions. Any pet owner can verify this. We know that animals can experience joy, and that animals can suffer.
We are dependent on animals for our existence, as we all know. It is in our self-interest to care for them. Even more so, we know that we can cause harm to animals by the way we treat them.
Almost everyone opposes animal fighting contests and all overt cruelty to animals. But should we limit our concern to obvious abuse? Awareness of animal emotions leads us to consider our moral obligations to all animals. How should we treat them if they too, are our neighbors?
If it is ever right to slaughter them, the methods should be as humane as possible. In the meantime, how they are raised matters; how they are housed, fed, and treated matters. If this is a new consideration for you, sit with it for a while and give it some thought.
Jesus told us that the greatest commandment is,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ …And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The dual commands to love God and neighbor, in the end, is liberating. We are invited to love a God of love, who loves us and who loves the entire creation.
We are invited to know that our true selves are who we are in God; we are the beloved community. We have also been given the priceless treasure of neighbors all over the world, and in every corner of our community both human and animal (as if that is even a meaningful distinction, biologically).
And we are not alone. The Spirit is present with us and in us, in every moment, luring us to the next right thing, coaxing us towards goodness, empowering us to make the right choices for the benefit of our human and animal neighbors, in this generation and in the ones to come.
This is what we must never loose sight of. This is the “main thing” for people trying to follow Jesus. And, as has been said, “The main thing, is to keep the main thing, the main thing.”