Sermon on Mark 12:28-31 and Romans 13:8-10 for Pentecost +14 A, September 10, 2017

Romans 13:8-10

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.   The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Mark 12:28-31 

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”   Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;   you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

This Wednesday evening we watched and discussed a video that featured Timothy Keller and Johnathan Haidt.  Rev. Keller is an author and pastor of a very successful church (PCA) in New York city.  Professor Haidt is a social psychologist and author who studies moral reasoning.  Keller is a Christian, of course, and Haidt is an atheist who has great respect for religion. 

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Their topic was pluralism – how to coexist in a country with such large differences of viewpoint.   Both of them emphasized the need to find areas of overlapping values instead of focusing on areas of difference.  There are large areas of overlapping values.

Overlapping Values and Effective Conversations

For example, all of us want a safe country for our children and grandchildren to grow up in.  We all want a thriving, healthy economy.  Nobody wants new wars to send our men and women off to fight.  We all want freedom and justice.  Most of us want a transparent, democratic political system.  We do  not want corruption.  We do not want the elderly to be abandoned or the disabled to go hungry.  There is all kinds of overlap in our values, even if we believe different paths will take us them.

If you believe something is true, and you want to convince someone who does not agree with you to accept it, then you must begin from the places of overlap.  You must begin from affirming something that you both agree on, and let them know that you believe they are right.  Then, from their perspective, you may be able to lead them to look at new information or a well reasoned argument, and they may be persuaded. 

If you want people to change their views, you start with common ground.  If you want to radically change their world views or their perspective about what is true, then it had better be on the basis of something they fundamentally believe already.

Jesus and Radical Change

This is exactly what Jesus did.  Jesus clearly wanted people to make a dramatic change in their thinking about God – in almost every way.  He wanted them to think of God’s character and nature differently, he wanted them to think differently about what was and was not important to God, and he wanted them to think differently about how God wanted to be worshiped. 

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That is huge.  That would mean they would have to change how they lived in almost every way, and Jesus was aware of that.

So he started with the most foundational, basic, fundamental commitment of a Jewish person, and agreed with it.  It was completely, uncontroversially common ground.  Every day, they would say the great creed of Judaism.  It comes from Deuteronomy, one of the books of the Torah, the law that, according to the story, Moses received directly from the hand of God on Mt. Sinai. 

This daily creed is what Jesus quoted, as we read in Mark’s gospel, when he was asked by the scribe, the Torah scholar, what was the first, that is, the greatest, most important commandment. 

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;   you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 

Jews call this creed the “Shema” because it begins with the Hebrew word “Shema” which means “Hear  Hear, O Israel.  It is a call to commitment.  God is one, not many.  God alone is to be worshiped without reservation; with the totality of all you are: heart soul, or self, mind and strength.

If you want radical change, you start with common ground.  Jesus was advocating radical change, so he started with common ground. 

Jesus and the 5 Moral Foundations

Jonathan Haidt lays out in his best-selling book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, what he and his team of researchers discovered about the way in which we all reason morally.  They said there are five primary categories, or moral foundations we use when we think about right and wrong: authority, loyalty, purity (or sanctity), caring and fairness. 

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It is interesting to see how Jesus uses all of these moral foundations (four here; the fifth elsewhere, and often).  Let us look at them. 

First, authority.  By agreeing with the scribe that the Shema creed is true, he is affirming their greatest source of moral authority, the Torah, the scriptures. 

Sanctity:  the Torah was not just an authority like the laws of Rome under which the Jews had to live, but was from God, so the Torah was sacred. 

Loyalty:  by ascribing to the Jewish creed found in that sacred authority, Jesus was being a loyal Jew.  So, Jesus is finding common ground in the moral foundations of authority, loyalty and sanctity.

These foundations,  authority, sanctity and loyalty, were not the end of the discussion of morality for Jesus, as they were for some of the people of his day.  Jesus was also hugely invested in the morality of caring.  There were some people who believed in the absolute sacred authority of Torah, that obeying its commands were most important, even if it meant causing or ignoring suffering. 

The Good Samaritan and the Care Foundation

The most famous place where Jesus criticized this view was in his famous parable of the Good Samaritan. 

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A man has been robbed and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road.  Two religious people, a priest, and a temple officer called a Levite come walking by and see him.  For the typical priest and Levite, the law of Moses is sacred and absolute.  Touching blood, or a corpse (if he is dead) will make them ritually impure, according to the Torah, so they pass by on the other side without helping.

Then, a hated Samaritan comes along.  He does not observe the same version of the Torah as Jews do.  He does not worship at the temple in Jerusalem, and Jews and Samaritans have hated each other for centuries.  But he cares, so he stops and helps.  He binds up his wounds; he takes him to an inn, pays for all his expenses and leaves him in good hands.

Clearly, for Jesus, the moral foundation of caring is hugely important.  In fact, more important than the sacred and authoritative purity laws in Torah about touching blood or corpses.  But if you elevate the concern for giving care above the concerns for purity, haven’t you just thrown off the authority of Torah?  Haven’t you undermined its sanctity?  Haven’t you become disloyal to your Jewish roots?

Not at all, as Jesus shows, as he again, reaches for common ground.  He finds another text from Torah, the law of Moses, the law of God from Sinai, and, since it is from the same source, he holds it up, and puts it on the same level as the Shema creed.  After agreeing about the first and most important commandment, Jesus adds:

The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The scribe who is questioning Jesus agrees.  So whether he knows it or not yet, the scribe has just acknowledged that lifting up the moral foundation of caring up to the level of the Shema, he has just changed the whole picture. 

If caring is as important to God as the purity laws, or even more so, then you have to live differently.  You cannot walk by on the other side.  You cannot withhold support to your needy, aging parents, and give the money instead to the temple and believe God is happy.  God is not happy: care for your needy parents is what God wants.  Caring for people in need is more important to God than keeping the temple going.  Is that not what “honor your father and mother  means? – and that comes right out of the ten commandments. 

In fact, in Jesus’ view, the whole temple system of priests and sacrifices, which are all mandated in the sacred, authoritative Torah, were of secondary importance, to God, compared with caring.  Jesus said, quoting a verse from the Hebrew prophets,

‘I [God] desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ (Matt. 9:13 and 12:7)

Jesus is saying that for God, mercy, or caring, or we might call it compassion to human beings is actually more important to God than offering animal sacrifices. That is what it means to love your neighbor as yourself; you care for your neighbor. 

So, who is my neighbor?  That is the question that Jesus was answering when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan.  At the end of it, he turned the question around and asked, “Who was a neighbor to the wounded man?  Of course the implication is that when you value caring above purity, the question is not who is, and who is not, my neighbor, but am I being a neighbor?  The question is, “who needs caring for?”   

Paul on the Morality of Caring

The apostle Paul was converted to this  radical Jesus-view of God and of what is important to God.  He summed it up perfectly, saying,

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.   The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; [etc.]… are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Here Paul talks about love as caring, in the form of not causing harm.  He says,

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”   

Love in Practice

Now, this sounds simple.  But in practice, it is complicated.  How do you show love, in the form of caring, when it involves risk?  For example, do you allow Syrian refugees into your country when doing so may let in a terrorist? 

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Do you allow the Dreamers extended DACA protections against deportation?  What if that would only encourage more illegal immigration?

For me, it is a moral question.  And for me, the moral foundations must be consciously applied.  What does it mean to be loyal to the Jesus tradition?  What does it mean to see Jesus’ teaching as our authority – especially given the necessary nuance of historical horizon, social location, and critical historical scholarship? 

What does it mean to hold sacred Jesus’ teachings, specifically about neighbor? What does it mean that Paul also reaffirms, in a text that functions for us as scripture, the same Jesus perspective on what is important to God with respect to our neighbors?

We must use our brains, our intelligence, and not act foolishly.  We believe, for example, that if you want to work with children here at church, or anywhere, you must be able to pass a background check. 

But we do notice that Jesus’ first concern was not for absolutizing safety over caring.  The Good Samaritan took risks when he stopped to help the robbery victim.  He could not guarantee that the robbers were not lurking nearby, waiting for their next victim.  The call was to take the risk for the sake of caring. 

What about modern day refugees? Well, we have the evidence of countries in Europe and Canada who welcome hundreds of thousands, even millions.  There have been terrorist attacks, but there are also great differences between us and Europe.  There, they stream across borders en mass.  Here, our State Department screens people thoroughly before allowing them to come.  So what does the call to love our neighbors mean?    

When the conversation about the level of risk that refugees present is wildly disproportionate to the actual risks that Europe and Canada are experiencing, then perhaps there are reasons besides the fear of terrorism that lie at the root of the issue.  If the reason for not liking refugees is not actually the negligible risk they pose, then what other reason could there be? 

When we hear the Dreamers, who were brought to this country by their parents, who are now in their twenties, being interviewed, and we see how assimilated they are – how they speak English without accent, how they value democracy and education, hard work and strong families as much or more than we do, what is driving the fear of them being here? 

I know some people do not agree with my conclusions, but several things aren certain.  Every conversation about refugees and immigrants is a conversation about people, and hence it is a conversation about our neighbors. 

Second, every conversation about neighbors, for Christians, must be a conversation about the question: how can we love them?  How can we care for them?  How can we make sure that they are not harmed?  Loyalty to our sacred scriptures and the teachings of Jesus we treasure and value so highly require that the conversation cannot be exclusively about risks and fears, but must be about love. 

I would like to conclude with a quotation from the late William Sloane coffin’s book Credo, and what she says:

“No sermon on love can fail to mention love’s most difficult problem in our time–how to find effective ways to alleviate the massive suffering of humanity at home and abroad.  What we need to realize is that to love effectively we must act collectively, and that in collective action, personal relationships cannot ignore power relationships. Until Christians learn this truth of a technological, complex world, we shall be, in this world, as lap dogs trying to keep up with the Wolfpack.” (page 23)

Thank God we are not being lap dogs.  We are committed to addressing collective problems collectively so that we can be people who indeed love the Lord, and love our neighbors.

 

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