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The Hardest Commandment (10/31/21)

Rev. Jessica Palys


What would you say if I asked you what is the greatest amendment to the US Constitution?

I could say, The Greatest Amendment to the Constitution is the 13th Amendment, prohibiting slavery in all its forms, except as punishment for a convicted crime. This is the greatest demonstration made in the constitution that we embrace that all people are truly equal, in fact the first time our country did truly embrace that little poetry from the Declaration of Independence when those words became an official amendment. And, the second part, that Congress shall have the power to enforce this article, empowering federal power over and above states’ rights, to make certain that it holds true. On this amendment hangs the whole of American democracy and all the founding fathers.

I know plenty of people who could - and do - argue that the 2nd Amendment is the greatest amendment, because without the right to defend ourselves we could never truly be certain that we were free. And on *this* amendment hangs all the freedom of the American dream envisioned by the founding fathers.

Or, perhaps you’d think it’s freedom of religion and separation of church and state. I imagine we’d have a lively little discussion on that one…

The point is, all of these would be very animated and compelling conversations. (We used to be able to have these debates in a scholarly spirit of mutual respect and learning, back before we were so polarized into the ‘us vs. them’.) All of these debates would help reveal our own logic and values, and perhaps even reveal something greater about the nature of our American system of government and how intricately and yet eloquently all the parts fit together.

Our scripture reading today has us in a little time warp. For several weeks now we’ve been plodding our way through Mark, hardly missing a verse between Sundays. These lessons have been focused on the disciples’ blindness. But then, the focus changes to the religious authorities - the scribes - and what we’ve skipped are two chapters of entrapment. There were a bunch of trick questions, gotcha questions, questions designed to trap Jesus between heresy to Jewish law or the dangerous punitive ego of Imperial Rome, all in front of the crowd that has gathered to see what this Jesus guy is all about. Jesus sidesteps and bends and weaves and rebounds each and every one. Jesus has survived the challenges of the Pharisees, then the Sadducees, and then, this scribe, who has been watching and admiring Jesus’ answers, steps forward with this earnest question:

Which commandment is the first of all?

For someone reading the gospel straight through, the preceding two chapters of trickery have set up an aura of competition, an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic. We see the holdover of these challenges in the last line of our text today - “after that, no one dared ask him any more questions.’ But this scribe steps out of the us vs. them dynamic. The scribe sees Jesus has answered questions well, and invites Jesus into the great debate of scholars at the time.

Debating the law was just as spirited in Jesus’ time as any discussion about earlier constitutional principles would be today. In Jesus’ time, there were other Jewish rabbis, or teachers, who had adherents to their teaching too. The shorthand for these groups of scholarly disciples are called ‘houses’. The two major schools of thought were the House of Hillel, named after Rabbi Hillel, and the House of Shammai, named after Rabbi Shammai. There were likely many other schools and teachers, but these two names have earned their place in history. These two schools had vigorous debates on matters of ritual practice, ethics, and theology which were critical for the shaping of the Oral Law and Judaism as it is today. And this question about the greatest commandment was a favorite conversation of Jewish scholars of the law. This scribe recognizes Jesus as wise, and Jesus is invited to the table of theological discourse.

His initial answer to the scribe - ‘Hear, Isreal; the Lord our God is one, and you shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength’ - is known in Judaism as the Shema. It was and is the bedrock of the Jewish faith, a prayer still recited even to this day at morning and evening services, kind of like Catholics beginning confession with ‘bless me father, for I have sinned’ and ending it with the sign of the cross, or the Lord’s Prayer that we repeat whenever we gather.

But then, Jesus adds to this accepted tradition with a second greatest commandment - and with this, he makes his argument. He acknowledges the Shema as the first commandment above all, to recognize God and commit heart, mind, strength and soul to God. But with these words, Jesus says that’s not all. It’s not only a vertical connection. Jesus proclaims that love of God is not complete without love of neighbor. To only love God is to follow only half of what was handed down by Moses. To profess faith in God without extending that love to your neighbor in the world is falling short. With utter simplicity, Jesus summarizes the first half of the ten commandments, all of which focus on love of God, and pulls them together with the second half of the ten commandments, all of which focus on love and respect for others.

What does love of neighbor look like? When Jesus says, love you neighbor as yourself, he’s quoting from the Levitical code of Justice. For those in his time, it would have immediately reminded them of the many other instructions listed there, some of which we read this morning. By referencing the Levitical code, Jesus argues that to love God is not only to be friendly and polite and do no harm to those on the street, but is to actively refuse to exploit one’s neighbor. Since we’ve this phrase over and over since time immemorial, in this case it’s helpful to have some tangible instructions that still resonate to the common day;

13 “‘Do not defraud your neighbor, - say, by making exorbitant profits during a pandemic - just because you can?

“‘Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight - just in case you might cause undue hardship to someone in financial crisis.

14 “‘Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind. In other words, do not exploit others’ weaknesses.

16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Like, don’t use your words to spread lies, hate, or disinformation?

“‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life.

Generally, Love of Neighbor means to value other’s welfare as you would value your own. What does love of neighbor look like to you?

To me, love of neighbor, very simply, looks like masks. To weather this annoying inconvenience not because I expect it will protect me from inhaling a virus, but because it will help protect you from inhaling my germs on any given day.

To me, love of neighbor looks like the ability for everyone to have a home. It looks like Kansas City’s Christmas in October, a project that I’ve heard this congregation used to participate in - where people take their time and talents and tools and elbow grease to help do the necessary upkeep on neglected properties on a given block in order to help people stay in their homes.

Love of neighbor looks like paid family leave and child care subsidies so that service workers can care for and protect their children with the same ease as those with worker benefits. It looks like a federal policy to pay a living wage and educational supports all across the board, so that we don’t continue to have working people who have to choose childcare or rent, food or utilities.

Love of neighbor is looking for opportunities to put myself in someone else’s shoes, walking their path with them, and using my advantages to make their path look more like my path. Love of neighbor means throwing our lot in with those vastly different, so that we might better understand each other and the challenges of this world we live in. Love of neighbor means solidarity. It requires us to see clearly through other’s eyes.

Yesterday, my seminary posted an anecdote that was an inspiring love of neighbor story. In WWII in Denmark, when the Third Reich ordered Danish Jews to wear the star of David sewn into their clothes, the next day almost all Danes emerged onto the street with exactly the same stars sewn onto their clothes - including the King and his wife. Many countries tried resistance in many ways, but in this instance they truly treated themselves as their neighbors were to be treated.

To love your neighbor as yourself means to value someone else’s welfare as you value your own.

Over the last several weeks we’ve talked about some components of belonging. Belonging means you have worth within your community. Belonging means to offer ways to bond together rather than exclude. Belonging is being known, the feeling of being seen and accepted for your authentic self. Belonging means being able to say what you feel with honesty and vulnerability. It may require us to voice uncomfortable truths and face up to conflict while remaining confident that the health of the community is worth the tension. Belonging requires the courage to cast off our security and step into the unknown. We may need to embrace the risk of an uncertain future by including others, by leaning on others, and take comfort that we will not be going forward alone. And finally, I’d say that belonging is knowing that someone values your welfare as they value their own. It’s knowing, really knowing, that they value your opinion, your feelings, your safety, and your inclusion, as you value theirs. It’s knowing that your presence matters.

The greatest commandment, that which is greater than all the rituals and worship and earthly security we can find, is to know and embrace that we belong to God and we belong to each other, and to live our lives in such as way that demonstrates that belonging to God by caring for each other’s welfare as we care for our own. May we work to model all the important elements of belonging here, in this congregation, so that one day we may be modelers of it out in the world. May it, one day, be so for all of God’s Kingdom. Amen.

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