Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sunday Message: Making Good Neighbors

First, a bit of scripture: And one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” And [Jesus] said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 22:35-40

     “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the second half of what is often referred to as the Great Commandment. The first half being to love God with all your heart. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each tell this story in nearly identical ways about loving our neighbor. Each of them are referencing Moses’ much earlier proclamations of the same. So the idea had been around for many centuries by this point and each of them tells it.
One version of the story which stands out to me is Luke’s, however. In his version, as a test of Jesus’ knowledge of the Torah, a lawyer asks him how to achieve eternal life. Also, and more importantly in my view, in Luke’s version, Jesus doesn’t just tell him as in the other gospel stories, but answers the lawyer’s question with a question of his own. Luke’s version is the only one where Jesus isn’t answering the question, but makes the lawyer do it. He says to the lawyer, ‘Well, what do you think? It’s all there in the law. How do you interpret it?’ I love this. I love how he turns the lawyer’s test back on him. The lawyer answers that we should love God, and we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Jesus told him that he answered correctly and that if he does this, he will live.
There are several things which are interesting about this exchange. First, is the fact that the first character is described as a lawyer. It’s not a lawyer in the sense we understand it today. This is more of a person who is exceptionally learned in the 613 laws which Moses described in the Old Testament. Back then, a lawyer was really a religious scholar.
These “lawyers” are often depicted in scripture as having a bit of a chip on their shoulders. For they, by tradition, are the ones to whom people turn with their questions regarding right behavior. They are the authority. The lawyers are the ones typically handing out the gold stars. But in Luke’s version, Jesus tests the lawyer on his knowledge instead of the other way around.
I can picture a person who has a sense of superiority about his knowledge of the rules striding up to the teacher to challenge him. Clearly he is not convinced that Jesus knows what he’s talking about so he tests his knowledge of the rules with the most important two of them all: Whom shall we love? And, What’s in it for me?
The answer to the question of ‘whom?’ is God and neighbor. That’s whom you should love. God and neighbor. Which could be argued to be the exact same thing. In Matthew’s version of the exact same story, even Jesus suggests that they might actually be the same thing. And the answer to the second question ‘What’s in it for me?’ is a reward. A reward described as eternal life.
I sometimes have a problem with this one. For in my belief we are all eternal beings already whose eternal nature is immutable. It can’t be dinged or dented. It can’t be done or undone. We are eternal spiritual beings having a human experience with a deliberate shelf life. So how can our eternal nature be described as a reward for good behavior? How can it be something which is described as a gold star we get in eternity by living up to a rule here on earth?
I think it’s possibly more accurate to interpret the idea of gaining eternal life through our actions here on earth as an earthly reward rather than a heavenly one. In Universalism, the belief is held that we are all loved equally, we are all saved equally, and we all have the same future. We shy away from the idea of hell. But even that is described as an eternal experience of its own. So yet again, our nature is described as being eternal; no beginning, no end. So, also again, how can eternity be granted as a reward? It’s life that we’re really talking about in scripture. And life occurs here on earth. And our experience of our time here on earth can be relatively heavenly, or a very much living hell.
Loving God is somewhat of a moving target. How can we love something we cannot comprehend? Or perhaps not even believe in? But we can love our neighbor. I make the assumption, arrogant or not, that to treat our neighbor with respect and dignity is the actual activity of loving God. I think that’s why Jesus groups them together. Because the first one is such a conceptual challenge that we are offered the second one as the linear human pathway toward it.
And we humans love our nice, linear checklists. We get anxious about conceptual things. We want solid, clearly defined parameters. We want guidance and certainty. I think the Great Commandment, given as it is in two parts, is a two-fold description of the exact same thing: a primer on how to love.
Here’s where selfishness comes in a little bit. Didn’t see that coming, did you? But selfishness, as a word with a definable root and suffix, does not describe a negative act. The word selfish describes an action done with an awareness of self. It doesn’t imply the exclusion of anyone else, it just is careful to include our own needs, our own feelings and desires, in the equation. We cannot exclude our own awareness of self in any action we perform, because we are always present in all of our actions. I cannot give a homeless person a meal or a place to sleep without considering how such an activity will make me feel, how it will impact my bank account or my family. I cannot extract myself from the soup of my actions. Think about that for a moment.
The best and worst of our actions are always done with an awareness of how we feel, how it will make us feel, what we will get out of it. That’s sounds kind of selfish, doesn’t it? But is it a bad thing to wonder what our benefit is? It’s natural. For certainly we cannot avoid it. We feel good when we do something good and we feel guilty when we do something bad. Sometimes we even feel guilty when we do something good. And sometimes we feel great when we do something bad.
The reason I bring this up in the context of being a good neighbor is because we are advised to love them as we love ourselves. Which means we have to know how to love ourselves first. We have to know how we want to be treated if we wish to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We have to know, or at least imagine, what it feels like to have a good neighbor in order to be one.
So what do we want from our neighbors? Well, we definitely don’t want them to steal from us, or sleep with our spouses, or to lie to us, or lie about us to others. Or kill us. But those are referred to as negative commandments, meaning things we should not do. Positive commandments are things we should. What are the positive commandments about being a good neighbor? One that comes to mind is also from Moses that we should treat the foreign-born as if they were native-born. Because our Christian forebears, when they were still Jewish, were foreigners in Egypt. The advice is to remember what it’s like to feel out of place, out of home, so that we remain hospitable. Our government would do well to remember this in our immigration policy.
The Christian life practice is one which is mostly about positive commandments. Be forgiving, be hospitable, be compassionate, be nonresistant, be empowering to others. Seek out those who are sick and do your best to heal them. Seek out those who feel alienated and welcome them. Visit those in prison. Forgive them for their crimes. Soothe their fearful hearts. Empower them to do better. Love them right where they are with the expectation that if we accept them as they are, they will have the capacity to transform into something better. That doesn’t mean to excuse negative behavior, but it does redefine the ways we should approach crime and criminals. We cannot arrest or incarcerate our way into a more loving world. Lead us not into the temptation of vengeance. Don’t resist their fearful hearts, give them something better to do with them. It is a highly active practice meant to, over time, end the cycles of violence and bring about peace on earth it is in heaven.
So, we are asked, advised, even commanded to love our neighbor. What shall you do with that suggestion? What do you expect to be the reward for living up to it? What peace exists in our future if only we were be even a little bit more purposeful in our loving actions toward others? We might just find that our hearts are a bit more at ease. That we feel a little bit safer in the presence of our neighbor. And when tragedy strikes, as it will often do, we shall not be alone in our grief. Nor shall we celebrate alone when we find ourselves blessed.

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