When Jean Lubke and I attended the Global Baptist Peace Conference a few years ago, our African friends were intrigued by our election system and the transfer of power. They were especially surprised by the presence of former presidents. In some of their countries, there were no former presidents, for they were removed from office by force.
Now the new work begins—to heal the rift in our country and in our state. We need to pull together as neighbors and friends who want the best for our country and state. The season after the election will demonstrate who we are as a people.
How might our perspective change on this side of the election? How do we keep political decisions in perspective? What about our religious perspective? Does that hold any sway for the way we lead our lives? Today’s scripture is Jesus’ ‘it all comes down to this’ statement: “Love God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” All the prophets and the Torah is based upon this.
Let’s set the context. Jesus is being challenged left and right. The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, they were all trying to trap him. They didn’t like his following. They thought they might be able to catch him in a contradiction or at least a sound bite that would discredit him in the next political ad:
“Can you believe what Jesus said this time? (cue the creepy music)
First it’s blessing lepers.
Next it’s praying for enemies.
And now he’s even turning over Moses’ laws.
Jesus: soft on Rome, soft on holiness, even openly works on the Sabbath.
Jerusalem’s not ready for his kind of change. "
The Pharisaic, Scribal and Sadducean parties are responsible for the content of this advertisement.”
Scribes were very interested in keeping order. They were intellectual scholars. They knew the book. They were interested in testing Jesus’ orthodoxy. So they asked him which was the most important commandment. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6 by saying you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. This is in fact the Deuteronomist’s expansion on the fist commandment, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord your God is One.”
The scribe may well have wanted Jesus to get the heart of the matter. He wanted him to remember that loving God is the first and foremost thing we should do. But we can’t just do it with our lips. We must embody the love of God. We must love God not only with our lips, but also with our heart, and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength. This means that loving God takes our all in all, our whole being, our whole focus.
The scribe must have been pleased. This is the focus of the scribal party. It’s to love and praise God. Therefore, worship ought to always be positive. We need to not cease in praising God. We need to use all of our heart and our mind and our soul and our strength in the praise of God. This is surely what it’s all about.
Jesus would have passed the Scribal test if he had not added that pesky second commandment. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Scribe didn’t ask for the second commandment. He asked for the first. Jesus didn’t follow the debate format.
Not only that, but it’s not the second commandment. In fact it’s not even in the Ten Commandments—not the list in Exodus 20 or the slightly different list in Deuteronomy 6. It comes from Leviticus 19:9-19. That dreaded holiness code that we tend not to like so much because of all of its restrictions.
But there in the midst of it all is the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments, says Jesus, lay all of the law and the prophets. If you hold to these, the rest is just window dressing. You can almost hear the scribes stuttering, “but, but, but that’s not the point.” Well, it depends on your perspective.
Jesus was implying that you can’t understand the first commandment, without the second. The second is intimately related to the first. We need to have both love for God and love for our neighbors who are the images of God all around us. Jesus was giving the scribes and us some perspective—looking at the bigger picture.
Ched Myers tells us about the joining of these two commandments in his commentary entitled Binding the Strong Man: “The point Mark is trying to make by this bold conflation is consistent with his ideology: heaven must come to earth—there is no love of God except in love of neighbor.” (Myers 1997:318)
Of course, the scribe might not have liked this statement, this inclusion of loving your neighbor. There are plenty of examples back then and there are plenty of examples right now of people calling themselves Christians and not loving their neighbor.
Walter Rauschenbusch wrote about this a hundred years ago as he watched triumphal Christianity do great evil: "When we call out the militant spirit in religion, we summon a dangerous power. It has bred grimness and cruelty. Crusaders and inquisitors did their work in the name of Jesus, but not in his spirit. We must saturate ourselves with the spirit of our Master if our fighting is to further his Kingdom. Hate breeds hate; force challenges force. Only love disarms; only forgiveness kills an enemy and leaves a friend. Jesus blended gentleness and virility, forgiving love and uncompromising boldness. He offered it as a mark of his Kingdom that his followers used no force to defend him. Wherever they have done so, the Kingdom of heaven has dropped to the level of the brutal empires. His attack is by the truth; whoever is won by that is conquered for good. Force merely changes the form of evil. When we 'overcome evil with good,' we eliminate it." -Walter Rauschenbusch (The Social Principles of Jesus)
So in the wake of this election season, how might we have a different perspective? How might we focus on loving our neighbor as ourselves? What policies will we embrace? For what things will we advocate?
Religious folk tend to like to think we know what God wants. We like to have answers to help us make sense of our world. Thank God we can come together with questions burning in our hearts that can help us address the dissonance between love and justice, between war and peace, between hope and despair. We can come together to find the answers in community.
The Scribes thought they knew what God wanted. They had all of the answers. They knew their scriptures. They were good Synagogue-going folks. But they were more interested in keeping the religious community holy than they were in loving their neighbor. Jesus even said they were not far from the Kingdom of God, inasmuch as they sought to love God and neighbor.
You can’t keep the church holy if you don’t love your neighbor.
You cannot have eternal life unless you love your neighbor.
You cannot be a follower of Christ unless you love your neighbor.
But what if your neighbor votes a different color than your red, blue, or green?
What if your neighbor is Muslim, or Jewish or Atheist?
What if your neighbor is a conspicuous consumer?
What if your neighbor doesn’t rake his or her leaves?
What if your neighbor is committed to the absolute opposite of what you’re committed to?
There is a cartoon that has run in numerous issues of the Baptist Peacemaker. It has a preacher speaking from the pulpit saying, “When the Bible says that Adam and Eve were the first people on earth, that’s what it means. But when the Bible says love your enemy, that’s not what it means.”
I like the perspective of Jim Wallis, the founder of the Sojourners community. He wrote this past week:
Excerpts from “The Prerequisite of the Common Good”, November 7, 2012
“The election results produced neither the salvation nor the damnation of the country...The results…showed how dramatically a very diverse America is changing; people are longing for a vision of the common good that includes everyone. As one commentator put it, “the demographic time bomb” has now been set off in American politics — and getting mostly white, male, and older voters is no longer enough to win elections…The common good welcomes all “the tribes” into God’s beloved community, and our social behavior and public policies must show that…
But people of faith aren’t going to be entirely happy with any political leader, and they shouldn’t be. Many of them feel politically homeless in the raging battles between ideological extremes. But they could find their home in a new call for the common good — a vision drawn from the heart of our religious traditions that allows us to make our faith public, but not narrowly partisan. That requires a political engagement that emphasizes issues and people above personalities and partisanship.
For example, fiscal responsibility is indeed a moral issue, but how we achieve it, and at whose expense, is also a moral choice. As the debates about the “fiscal cliff” now begin, expect the community of faith to be visibly and actively involved in pressing both Republicans and Democrats to protect the poorest and most vulnerable. An even deeper unity has grown across the faith community about the need to “welcome the stranger” by fixing a broken system with comprehensive immigration reform.
Whether government is serving its biblical purpose of protecting from evil and promoting good is more important than ideological debates about its size. How can we move from an ethic of endless growth to an ethic of sustainability, from short-term profits to longer term human flourishing, from the use and consumption of the earth to stewardship and creation care?
More and more Christians, especially younger ones, now believe our congregations will be finally evaluated not merely by their correct doctrines, but by whether their missions are serving the “parishes” of this whole world; here and now, not just for the hereafter.
The prerequisite for solving the deepest problems this country and the world now face is a commitment to a very ancient idea whose time has urgently come: the common good. How do we work together, even with people we don’t agree with? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves, but also one another? Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we rescue and redeem our politics.
Many of us believe that to be on God’s side, and not merely claim that God is on ours (to paraphrase Lincoln), means to live out the prayer Jesus taught us, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
My friends, there i