Jesus and his disciples have journeyed to Jerusalem. What our reading really doesn’t say is that the gospel story takes place during Holy Week. Jesus has come to Jerusalem after healing blind Bartimaeus by the side of the road just outside Jericho, and he won’t be leaving. After driving out of the temple the money changers and the ones selling animals to the pilgrims in town for the Passover, the leaders want to trap him with technical theological and political questions. They want him to slip up. So that’s what they’ve been doing all afternoon, when one of the scribes—a lawyer and scholar—heard Jesus and his adversaries go back and forth. The scribe hears the way Jesus fended off his inquisitors and is impressed. So he asks Jesus a question not to test him, but because he really wants to hear what Jesus has to say: “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus responds with words he first learned as a little boy. “Shema Yisrael, Adonai, Eloheinu, Adonai echad.” “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and then he continues on with the rest of the words from that verse in Deuteronomy 6, “and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And then not pausing a moment, Jesus gives more than the scribe asked for, pulling a verse from Leviticus 19: “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The scribe is impressed, and like a good teacher, repeats to Jesus the points he just made, that God alone is God, and that we should love God and love our neighbors, and, he continues adding his own take, these are so much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices that could be given to God in the temple. He says this, of course, in the temple itself with thousands of the faithful milling about preparing for the Passover in a couple of days, when they would be offering sacrificial lambs to God. “You’re not far from the kingdom,” Jesus tells this scribe. “You are on the right track. You are understanding the things of God.”
It may be easy for us to hear the last bit about offerings being less in the eyes of God, and think that we’ve got this all figured out now. That those folks back in Jesus day were too caught up in the specifics of their rituals to see the true way of God. And, sadly, we don’t think “folks,” we think “Jews” and allow a sort of Christian tribalism sneak in. It can even become a bit antisemitic in our minds, that we’re better now and the ones who truly follow God. I say this recognizing that just a couple of days ago we passed the third anniversary of the most lethal antisemitic violence in the US. On October 27, 2018 an armed gunman shot and killed eleven congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh—in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood—and wounding six others. Those 11 victims included some Holocaust survivors; Jewish neighbors who had made it through the worst hate thrown against them in the past century, only to lose their lives as they gathered on a Saturday morning to worship in a country that protects their ability to worship. Lest we think that somehow we’ve got faith down pat, people claiming to be Christians—the perpetrator of this crime embraced a Christian nationalism—have clearly not loved their neighbors as themselves, determining that some people are certainly not their neighbors at all. Like some religious people of all faiths and times, there are those who twist words about love and think that they are only for those who think and pray like them. That others aren’t neighbors at all. That God will accept and even love them if they turn against those the see as God’s enemies.
Part of this is the fault of Christian leaders, and specifically in the way we have presented the good news about Jesus. Jesus sums up the good news as a call to love God and love our neighbors fully. Yet, according to pastor and activist Jim Wallis, in America, “The gospel message has been molded to suit an increasingly narcissistic culture.” He continues, “Conversion is proclaimed as the road to self-realization. Whether through evangelical piety or liberal therapy, the role of religion is presented as a way to help us uncover our human potential—our potential for personal, social, and business success, that is. Modern conversion bring Jesus into our lives rather than bringing us into his. We are told Jesus is here to help us to better do that which we are already doing. Jesus doesn’t change our lives, he improves them. Conversion is just for ourselves, not for the world. We ask how Jesus can fulfill our lives, not how we might serve his kingdom.” That’s a pretty strong indictment, but one that clearly sums up what is often communicated and presented as the truth. These days Christians tend to focus on the rights offered us under religious freedoms rather than how to live as disciples. We care more about our perceived wrongs than whether or not the poor get enough to live on.
So here it is friends: the way of Jesus is costly. It means taking action and standing alongside those who experience hate and injustice. Left on our own, we’ll follow our own paths, putting ourselves first. We get bombarded with that message again and again. Retailers will once more be running their Christmas ads in just a matter of days telling us to treat ourselves this year—that a new car or wardrobe or jewelry is something we deserve. But that’s not the message of the kingdom Jesus ushered in; it isn’t about us. The work of the kingdom is always about loving others. It is for their good, lifting up their lives, helping them become the people God intended them to be.
If you’ve ever heard Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, preach, you’ve likely heard him say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” When he preached at the Royal wedding of Prince Henry and Meghan Markle, he focused on the power of love. He recalled the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, who declared “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world, for love is the only way.” You see, the false gospel message that gets presented—the one about power and self-fulfillment—just keeps us in that old world. It brokers the message of God for influence and greed. It puts money changers in the temple or Christian nationalism in our government. It leads to people grabbing as much as they can for themselves.
But if we love God with all that we have and are, and if we love our neighbors as ourselves? Well, then the world would be made new. We’d no longer hear about how many people live in poverty in the richest country in the world, or about acts of hate perpetrated in our neighborhoods. Suicides among kids who are questioning their identities would stop. Domestic violence would end, racial injustice would be overcome. The rich would no longer exploit the poor, and we would allow ourselves the time and space to build relationships with those we love. We’d encounter a fuller life, the one intended for us by God.
All through love. Love God and love your neighbor. There is no other commandment greater than these. Our world desperately needs that love. We desperately need that love. So let us commit to each day beginning with a simple prayer: “Lord, today, I choose love. Help me to live into your good news, showing love both to you and my neighbor, as I show care and love to myself.” If we did that, if we began each day with that intention, well, we wouldn’t be far from the kingdom ourselves.