How to Love a Neighbor
September 13, 2015
I thought it might be fitting to begin this morning’s sermon with a few words of wisdom from one of our culture’s leading philosophical voices…Homer Simpson.
- Of his aspirations, Homer said, "All my life I've had one dream: to achieve my many goals."
- Of surviving in life, he said, "Three sentences will get you through life. Number one, 'Cover for me.' Number two, 'Oh, good idea, Boss.' Number three, 'It was like that when I got here.'"
- Of his marriage, he talks with his wife Marge. “Homer,” Marge asks, “is this the way you pictured married life?” “Pretty much,” he answers. “Except we drove around in a van solving mysteries.”
- Of responsibility, Homer said, "You can't keep blaming yourself. Just blame yourself once, and move on."
In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we hear how a scribe – a scholar of Jewish law – asked a new voice in his culture for a summary of his wisdom. “Which commandment is most important of all?” The question was an invitation to engage in a classical rabbinic teaching technique, and Jesus accepts the invitation.
He answers the scribe by combining two verses from the Hebrew Bible; he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy, the statement of faith about the oneness of God known as the Shema:
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ (6:4-5)
In fact, Jesus modifies Deuteronomy by adding “with all your mind.” Jesus wants us to think. Christian faith does not imply there are thoughts we should not explore, questions we should not ask, or subjects we should not investigate. To have faith in God with all our mind is precisely to believe that nothing we can learn or discover could ever be a threat to belief in God.
And then he adds a verse from the Book of Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (19:18). What he omits from Leviticus are the verses leading up to his quote, which present very specific ways to love one’s neighbor. Farmers should leave some crops around the edge of the field and some of the grapes in the vineyard for “the poor and the alien” (19:10). People should neither steal nor defraud. Laborers should be paid promptly, and no one should take advantage of the handicapped (19:13-14). Maximizing profit at all costs and cutting corners are contrary to love of neighbor.
This is true wisdom, both philosophical and theological, but it is not new wisdom. A story from the Talmud – the commentary on the Hebrew Bible – tells of Rabbi Hillel the Elder (40 BC – 10 AD) who was challenged by a Gentile to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”
Nothing Jesus says is new to the Jewish tradition. What is new and unexpected to readers and hearers of Mark’s Gospel is the mutual admiration between Jesus and his questioner. The scribe’s question “Which commandment is the most important of all?” is sincere. When he hears Jesus’ answer and adds his own thoughts they are wise and thoughtful, “Loving God and neighbor is much more important than burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Mark was writing at a time of tension between the early church and the synagogue, but he goes out of his way in this story to indicate that not all Jewish scholars were Jesus’ opponents. This scribe is the only one in Mark’s Gospel, in fact, to be described affirmatively. He stands at the end of a continuum of responses to Jesus in the 12th chapter. In verse 12, the response was hostility, in verse 17 amazement, silence in verse 27, and here, admiration.
The scribe’s response to Jesus affirms that he too believes religion – meaning the ritualized practices of religion – is secondary to loving God and neighbor. This is all the more surprising when you remember that the man was a member of the religious establishment, an authority figure of the Temple where sacrifices were offered. As if I were to say that coming to worship on Sunday morning wasn’t all that important.
Well…he doesn’t say religious traditions aren’t important. You should still come to church on Sunday mornings! He says those rituals are not as important as love. And Jesus agrees: “you’re not far from the Kingdom of God.”
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
If only it were as easy as it sounds.
When Luke tackles this question in his Gospel he goes off on an exploration of the question “who is my neighbor?” But when I read Mark’s version – without the story of the Good Samaritan – the sticking point for me is this idea of loving myself. Sometimes I do it too much; I can be prideful and self-indulgent. Often I do it too little; expecting too much of myself and berating myself when I can’t meet those expectations.
The history of Christian thought demonstrates the same ambivalence. Earlier theologians advocated for the idea of loving ourselves; they even gave it a certain priority.
- “A man who loves God is not wrong in loving himself,” Augustine said.
- Thomas Aquinas quoted Aristotle: “The origin of friendly relations with others lies in our relations to ourselves.”
In order to love my neighbor rightly, they argued, I must first love myself rightly.
The 16th century Protestant Reformers said the opposite.
- “Charity is love not for oneself but for another,” Martin Luther said, “therefor to please our neighbor means not to please oneself.”
- Those of you from Calvinist traditions can probably guess that John Calvin went even further: “We shall never love our neighbors with sincerity…till we have corrected the love of ourselves. The love of ourselves leads us to neglect and despise others – produces cruelty, covetousness, violence, deceit, and all kindred vices…. Our Lord therefore enjoins that it be changed into the love of our neighbor.”
(Never let it be said that Catholics and Jews have cornered the market on guilt; we Protestants do a fine job of it.)
The Reformers assumed that everyone has too much self-love, and that we need to cure ourselves of it. But some people (maybe all people at some times) do need to be encouraged in self-love. Especially abused spouses, abandoned children, and the severely depressed. We all need to hear that we are of value, that we are part of God’s good creation.
Biblical scholar Lamar Williamson says that we will be helped to understand this Great Commandment if we understand the meaning of one little word correctly: “as.” We commonly misread it to mean as much as, he says. We think Jesus (and Leviticus) are saying “love your neighbor as much as you love yourself. But it is more properly understood to mean “in the same way as” – love your neighbor in the same way as you love yourself.
- How do we love ourselves? Well, when we are truly loving toward ourselves
- We’re tolerant of ourselves, we have time for ourselves, we’re interested in ourselves.
- We hope for the best, we deeply desire our own well-being.
- We make excuses for ourselves; we forgive ourselves.
Oddly enough, Homer Simpson was right. When we’re at our best in loving our less-than-perfect selves, we blame ourselves once and then move on.
These are the ways we are to love our neighbors, as well. Not to expect perfection, nor to be completely indulgent. But to love with discipline and patience, with genuine care and enduring affection.
This sermon actually got underway about 3 Sundays ago, as I stood in the Gathering Space, waiting for the opening announcements to be given and the first hymn to begin. I try to use the time to focus myself on what lies ahead…but sometimes the ushers and I get to talking as we wait together.
Jon Stahl was stationed at the center doors. “You know what you should preach about sometime?” he asked.
“Uh oh,” I thought. “Here it comes.” Sermon topic suggestions can range from the impossible and unrealistic to the relevant and timely. Jon hit the target dead center.
“What are we supposed to do about these panhandlers that stand on the sides of intersections and ask for money?”
“Darn it,” I thought. “He’s right.”
But here’s the problem: I don’t think I know the answer.
You know who Jon was talking about, right? The men and women standing at busy intersections and highway ramps holding cardboard signs: Homeless. Lost everything. Anything helps. God bless you. They stand in good weather and bad, day after day, their belongings in plastic bags and backpacks piled next to them.
Here’s how my own internal dialogue goes each time I stop my car next to someone asking for help.
- “They shouldn’t be standing there; it’s dangerous.”
“I should give them something. What do I have in my wallet?”
- “Don’t give them cash. They’re probably just going to use it for alcohol or cigarettes.”
“If I was in this situation, wouldn’t I want help?”
- “Don’t we have shelters and services in this town to help these folks? Where are the human services people?”
“Jesus says we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
- “The light is changing. Whew.”
Maybe your conversation is different. My guess is that we all have those internal conversations, though. And we probably end up with different results.
On occasion, I’ve handed over a dollar or two. Sometimes I give a granola bar. I admire those who think ahead and have coupons for fast food restaurants waiting for just such a circumstance. But most of the time I decide that I don’t think asking for help at a busy intersection is a good idea, and I don’t want to support it. I believe that I can love my neighbors better in other ways and I try to do so:
- Sock-It-To-Me Sunday
- CROP Walk
- Comfort Quilts
- My pledge that supports denominational relief agencies and this church’s efforts to love our neighbors
An old joke says “Do not do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Their tastes may be different.” No matter how much you might love a day of ice-fishing, please do not give it to me as a sign of your love.
But neither does giving another what they desire always qualify as love – a box of chocolates for the diabetic who misses them is also not a gift of love.
We love others by helping them move toward what is good for them, just as we love ourselves by moving ourselves towards what is good for us. Loving myself is not about indulging my every desire, neither is loving another about indulging theirs.
You and I are creatures of God. We are both made by God to be a certain way, and that way is our final good. Love is to help each other – and ourselves - toward that goal.
Ever since Jon Stahl made me think about this question more seriously, I have changed one thing about the way I love my neighbors who stand with cardboard signs at busy intersections asking for help: I don’t ignore them. I look them in the eye, I smile and nod, but I do not roll down my window and hand them something. I want to acknowledge their presence and their value, even though I do not want to support their action.
Maybe this is not the right answer. Maybe you have come up with something different. Maybe one of you will tell me what you do and you will change my mind.
The Bible does not tell us exactly what to do in response to the panhandlers at intersections. The Bible says “Love your neighbors as yourselves” and then expects us to think about it and pray about it and decide for ourselves. Jesus wants us to think!
Brothers and sisters, this is what church is for – to help us think and pray and wonder together about how to live out our faith in this time and place. Sermons might help – or they might not – but the only way to truly answer this kind of question for yourself is to be part of a small group of others who are asking the same kinds of questions. (People who hold you accountable to your expectations; who celebrate with you when you meet them; who forgive you when you don’t.)
As we start this new program year together, I want to encourage you to do more than come to church on Sundays. I’m not telling you it’s not important! But – honestly – it’s not the most important thing about being a Christian. Loving God and loving your neighbor in the way that you love yourself is the most important thing. And you (and I) need help to figure out how to do that.
- Adult Forum, Sunday mornings at 9:00.
- Other weekday educational opportunities
- Gateway groups – Debbie is ready with sign-up sheets in the Gathering Space
You and I are creatures of God. We are each made by God to be a certain way, and that way is our final good. Love is to help each other – and ourselves - toward that goal.
That’s what the scribe was doing for Jesus – helping him name his beliefs and his mission. That’s what Jesus was doing for the scribe – You are close to the Kingdom of God. It’s what we who are University United Methodist Church are to do for one another.
William C. Placher. Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Mark. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Wisdom of Homer Simpson from The Writer’s Almanac for April 19, 2011. Writersalmanac.org.
Lamar Williamson, Jr. Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Mark. John Knox Press, 1983.