Sunday, July 14, 2013

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

You might say Leviticus is the least read book of the Bible. One of my professors called it ‘scriptural Sominex,” referring to the over-the-counter sleep aid popular south of the border. It is a treasure trove of obscure and arcane laws, largely ignored and mostly forgotten.

Too bad, really, because some are quite useful. Looking only at Leviticus 19, you will find these goodies:

Stand up in the presence of the aged, and show respect for the elderly.

Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity.

Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them.
Don’t put tattoo marks on yourselves.

Don’t mate different kinds of animals. Don’t plant your field with two kinds of seed. Don’t wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.

Don’t turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

‘Hold it,’ you say, ‘isn’t that half of the Great Commandment, Jesus’ most concise statement of a life of faith, found in the New Testament?’ It is. But it’s also a quote from Leviticus, with the first half—the love God half—found in Deuteronomy 6.

You see, Jesus loved the scriptures in a way that we often fail to recognize. When he and his disciples weren’t singing Psalms, he was quoting the Bible, interpreting the Bible, promoting the Bible, and in this case—lifting up a couple of passages that summarized the whole thing.

Except in Luke, where he didn’t. You see, the Great Commandment actually appears three times in the Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. And for Matthew and Mark, Jesus is being interviewed by an expert in the law and provides the two-part summary that we call the Great Commandment:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

That’s Matthew 22, and Jesus’ learned friend is apparently dumbstruck, or at least the evangelist decides not to record his response. Mark 12, however, records the response of this expert in the law, and the blessing that follows. “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right.”

Of course he’s right, he’s Jesus. Nevertheless, they agree, and we see in both Matthew and Mark the same pattern where someone seeks the answer and Jesus provides the answer.

So these are Jesus’ words then, or at least Jesus quoting his favourite verses from the Torah. But listen again to Luke 10, and we see that the focus has shifted providing the answer to seeking an answer from the questioner:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?”

Only then does the Great Commandment emerge—from the lips of this unnamed teacher of the law.

If you kept going in philosophy, rather than dropping it after the first class as I did, you will recognize this process as the socratic method of inquiry. It is a question-based pursuit of truth whereby the teacher provides questions rather than answers, and in doing so trains the mind of the student to ask their own interior questions as they ponder a given question. Rather than say ‘here’s the truth’ as Jesus is presented in Matthew and Mark, the Lukan Jesus says “How do you read it?”

This does at least two things: First, it requires the student to delve into their own understanding and sift through ideas, to make choices among all the possible ways of explaining the truth of salvation as expressed in the Law, the first five books of the Bible.

Second, it requires the teacher-become-student to apply the wisdom found in the Bible to his own experience: in effect, answering the question ‘what is truth for you?’ Theorists call this andragogy, using the experience of an adult learner to further understanding. In other words, when teacher meets teacher in Luke 10, Jesus draws on the wisdom and experience of this man to pursue truth. And it works.

Sadly, the dialogue ends. The dialogue ends in Luke when Jesus says “do this and you will live.” So for today I want to continue the dialogue, and explore a possible direction that might add truth to truth, or at least paint a picture of one of the challenges of remaining faithful.

What if Jesus asked us which is harder, part A or part B? Is it harder to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and you mind and your strength’ or to ‘love your neighbour as yourself’?

First, I might say ‘remember Friday?’ After a week that only ark-builders could comprehend, Friday was the perfect summer day. Warm, sunny, hardly humid at all, in that sweet-spot in the mid 20’s—in a word—perfect. It is hard not to love the Maker of Heaven and Earth on a perfect summer day. I sat on a patio with my son in the late-afternoon, and talked about drywall: what more can I say?

And loving your neighbour? That seems easy too. Or at least our volunteers in the drop-in make it look easy. Administrative Yodas, ground-beef-Julia Childs, gracious servers and hosts: every volunteer brings devotion and grace to the task of loving our neighbours, and the world is better for it. Yes, there may be challenging moments, and every volunteer can name one or two, but they keep coming back week-by-week, happy to help.

So loving God is easy most days, and loving our neighbour is really not that hard, so how do we answer this vexing question of column A or B, loving God or loving your neighbour as yourself? Loving God or loving your neighbour as yourself?

Well there it is, hiding in plain sight. I’m willing to bet that the most challenging part of the equation for most of us is in the ‘as yourself.’ Self-love, that terribly ambiguous concept that we each must wrestle with has to be about the most difficult thing to manage as we are busy loving God and loving whoever we define as neighbour. 

Many will say we have too much self-love. That excessive love of self is a great sin, and that the point of the Christian life is to let go of self-love and transfer that love on to others. Sounds good, except Jesus just give his maximum blessing to loving neighbour as you love yourself. He didn’t say ‘more than’ or ‘rather than,’ he said ‘love them as you love yourself.

I take this to mean that heathy love of self is critical to being able love others. And without dabbling too deeply into psychology, it seems to make sense. Someone who can’t stand themselves, doesn’t value themselves as a child of God, is hardly going to be equipped to love others. In the same way, when you haven’t experienced forgiveness can you forgive, or extend grace if you’ve never felt grace, and so on.

For too long we have been reading this as ‘you selfishly love yourself, of course, so now extend that love to your neighbour instead.’ But I think Jesus is saying the opposite. ‘Learn to truly love yourself, in spite of what you think, or what others say, and then and only then will you have the inner resources to truly love your neighbour, and those closest to you.’

Then Jesus said ‘do this, and you will live.’ You will live better, and more completely, and more peacefully with yourself and others, and then you can truly love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. Amen.


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