Twenty-third Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, November 1, 2015
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
The Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings that contains a series of discourses of legal, ritual and moral behavior that is organized around sages and rabbis confronting each other about their contrasting opinions. It includes not only those sages whose rulings or interpretations were the accepted ones; but also those whose opinions were ones of disagreement or dissent (Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 2, 2015, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2014, page 133).
In our reading from The Gospel According to Mark, Jesus is asked by one of the scribes about his understanding of the essence of the law. “Of all the laws, all of the commandments, which is the first of all.”
By engaging the scribe, Jesus became a part of the discussion of an age-old Talmudic tradition. His response is simple: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.
It is apparent that Mark, in writing this account of Jesus’ life, wanted his community to understand that the commandment to love did not start with Jesus. Within the context of other disputes that were occurring throughout Mark’s writings (Mark 12:13-27), a scribe asked Jesus about the most important commandment.
Jesus answered by appealing to two texts about love that come from the Hebrew Scriptures. The scribe, hearing Jesus’ response and knowing the scriptures, is compelled to agree with Jesus’ answer. (The Word & You, Nan Duerling, Volume 1, United Church Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 1997, page 36).
In the first instance, Jesus quotes Shema by referring to Deuteronomy 6:4-5. The statement of God being one and the commandment for us to love God was considered central to Judaism.
In the second instance, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18 about how we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. A previous verse seems to suggest that this love may be confined only to one’s own people. But by leaving it out, Jesus suggests that love for one’s neighbor includes everyone.
Another verse in the same chapter makes this evident (Leviticus 19:34): “You shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” All of this is to say that love knows no boundaries – geographically or otherwise.
That message is clear in our second reading from The Book of Ruth. The eighteen verses that were read this morning makes for a lengthy reading but any attempt to shorten it would destroy the narrative of a powerful story of love.
When Naomi’s husband Elimelech dies and leaves her a widow with two sons, her future looks bleak. They were Ephrathites from Bethelehem of Judah. Her sons, Mahlon and Chilion eventually married two alien Moabite women, one named Orpah and the other named Ruth. Naomi moves with her sons and their wives to Moab. After living there for ten years both sons died.
Naomi decides to return to Judah but encourages Orpah and Ruth to remain in Moab and to return to their mothers. Naomi is aware that without a husband or sons she would not be able to provide for them.
Orpah heeds Naomi’s instruction but Ruth decides to remain with her. She refuses to abandon Naomi. Instead Ruth commits herself to Naomi’s welfare and utters the words of a love that knows no boundaries: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17a).
Neither Naomi’s marital or maternal status, her racial or ethnic identity, her religious or social status deters Ruth from her love for her. Ruth demonstrates for us what happens when our love for God is joined with our love for neighbor and ourselves.
One may suppose that Ruth went on to deny her own identity and that we ought to do the same, but Jesus reminds us of the need to love ourselves. I would make the case that Ruth knew well enough that she was a Moabite and that her love for Naomi would mean nothing if she did not love herself.
There are those who argue that one can interpret “love your neighbor as yourself” to mean “as much as.” But others contend that the closer translation is more “in the same way as.”
Biblical scholars will point to John Calvin, a 15th century Protestant theologian and Karl Barth, a 19th century Protestant theologian who both suggested that we must not love ourselves; that to love ourselves is narcissistic, self-centered and selfish. But others will tell us how important it is for us to love ourselves as we love others. Thomas Aquinas, a 12th century Catholic theologian declared “to know and to appreciate your own worth is no sin” (Seasons of the Spirit, Pentecost 2, 2015, Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2014, page 128).
I would argue that we run the risk of not holding fast to the commandment to love whenever we attempt to diminish others or when others seek to diminish who we are. Naomi was faced with that prospect and when she implored Orpah and Ruth to leave her, she said of herself “ . . . the hand of the Lord had has turned against me” (Ruth 1:13). But when Naomi saw how determined Ruth was to go with her, she said no more.
Loving God, loving others, loving ourselves. Such loving sounds simple enough. But we often fall short especially when it comes to loving ourselves.
Someone shared an analogy of the importance of loving ourselves with the experience we all go through when were are in an aircraft and hear the instruction regarding oxygen masks. The flight attendant will remind everyone, “In the unlikely event that there is a change in cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will automatically appear from the panel above you. If you are traveling with someone who needs assistance, attach your mask first before assisting others.”
In other words, if we do not take care of ourselves, we cannot take care of others. If we do not love ourselves, we cannot love others.
When I was growing up it was said that if I ever wanted to know the true joy of the greatest commandment, I only needed to remember the acronym “JOY – Jesus first, others second, you last.” I have come to realize that that is really “bad theology.”
First of all Jesus made it clear that loving God is what comes first. Now I realize some of us may want to debate the deity of Jesus but all I am saying is what Jesus said, “First, love God.”
Second, the Bible teaches us and Jesus makes clear that there are two components to the commandment to love. The first commandment to “love God” and the second commandment is to love others as oneself. Both are inseparable.
Now what I am about to share with you is probably a “bad analogy” about how “loving” works, but nevertheless I think it is “good theology.” If I have shared this with some of you before, I beg your indulgence.
I have never been much of a gambler over the course of my lifetime. Living in California for sixteen years meant the temptation was there – a short drive to California-Nevada state lines and to the casinos or a walk down the block to pick up lottery tickets. I figured out fairly quickly that the odds of winning the lottery were statistically the same if I did not buy a ticket.
As for the drive to South Lake Tahoe, I always budgeted $20.00 on the three occasions I happened to be there for a vacation and that was it. Once it was gone, it was gone. All pau. I would play the nickel slots, sometimes the dime slots, sometimes the quarters, but that was it.
The one-arm bandit was a one-arm bandit. No touch screens back then. Whenever the cherries would line up whether one, two or three cherries in a row, there was great joy on the casino floor for me.
Loving God, loving others, loving ourselves is like having the three cherries drop down in a line. It would probably be safe for us to say that Jesus would forgo the analogy of the cherries lining up in a slot machine to make his point about the importance of loving God, loving others and loving ourselves.
No analogies or metaphors for Jesus. Instead he lifted up the essence of the law, the commandment to love and in doing so, he silenced all those who questioned him.
Let us pray: As we gather this day to share the bread and the cup help us, O God, to be joyous keepers of your commandment, by loving you with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and by loving our others as ourselves. Amen.