Holy Eucharist for Sunday, Proper 25, Year A
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Kalamazoo, MI
The culture of Jesus’ time and place, much like our own, was no stranger to the perils of partisan conflict. Today’s gospel opens in the middle of an argument between two established schools of Jewish thought: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
These two communities offer alternative interpretations of Judaism, in much the same way that different denominations offer alternative interpretations of Christianity today. Additionally, because there was no “separation of church and state” in the ancient world, the Pharisees and Sadducees also functioned as something like political parties in Judea. Imagine, if you will, a messy situation where The Episcopal Church functions as the primary meeting of the Democrats, while the Southern Baptists set the platform for the Republicans.
The Sadducees were a smaller group of wealthy elites who centered their worship on the sacrificial rituals of the Jerusalem Temple. Theologically, they accepted only the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, as divinely inspired and authoritative. They did not believe in destiny, angels, or an afterlife. Politically, they sought friendly and peaceful relations with the occupying Roman government.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, were a somewhat larger group of the lower classes. Their worship emphasized the study of the Torah in synagogues under the tutelage of learned rabbis. In addition to the five books of the Pentateuch, Pharisees also accepted the oracles of the prophets, collections of wisdom literature, and the oral interpretations of rabbinical scholars. They believed that moral purity would reform their national life and convince God to send the Messiah, an anointed king who would liberate their people from foreign occupation and influence. The Pharisees went on to form the foundation of Judaism, as it is practiced today.
Together, the Pharisees and Sadducees were both thoroughly Jewish movements. As joint religious denominations and political parties, they advocated competing agendas for “God and country” in Judea during the time of Jesus.
Our gospel reading for today begins as Jesus is ending a debate with one member of the Sadducee party. A nearby Pharisee, a legal scholar, listens with great interest to this argument. “If Jesus is obviously opposed to the Sadducees,” he thinks, “then maybe he is a member of our party?” With this question in mind, he decides to put Jesus to a little theological test about the Jewish Scriptures.
“Rabbi,” he says, “which mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah is the greatest?”
Jesus responds by ushering his interlocutor into the heart of their shared tradition by referencing the Shema.
The Shema, in Judaism, is the foundational faith statement of monotheism:
“Shema Yisrael:” (Listen, O Israel:)
“Adonai Eloheinu,” (The Lord is our God,)
“Adonai Echad.” (The Lord is ONE.)
This declaration of oneness represents not only the heart of Jewish tradition, but the heart of reality itself, as Jesus and his fellow Jews understand it: That, beneath the unfathomable diversity of beings and events in the universe, is Sacred Oneness.
Mystics, from many different religious traditions, affirm this Oneness in ways that are remarkably similar to one another. Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, Rumi, and Meister Eckhart all describe a state of Non-Duality that includes and transcends all separations: self and other, left and right, light and dark, spiritual and secular. Spirituality, it seems, is the art of unifying opposites in transcendent wonder.
Neurologists have identified those parts of the human brain that allow us to lump together separate objects as parts of a unified whole. Their studies of dedicated monks and nuns have demonstrated that those parts of the brain are particularly active during periods of intense meditation, thus explaining those experiences of peace and unity that mystics have tried to express for millennia.
Physicists, in their study of the beginning of time, have likewise affirmed that the universe seems to have had its beginning in a Singularity of time, space, matter, and energy that exploded some 13.8 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event to which we now refer as the Big Bang.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisee in today’s gospel makes reference to this same Sacred Oneness at the heart of reality itself. The only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness, Jesus declares in the words of the Torah, is Love.
The greatest commandment in the Torah, according to Jesus, is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” These words, adapted from Deuteronomy 6:5, appear in the Torah immediately after the verse which lays out the Shema for the first time. “The Lord is one,” Jesus says in effect, “and the only appropriate response to Sacred Oneness is love.”
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. For Jesus, love is not just the sappy feeling sensationalized in pop songs and rom-coms. For Jesus, love is not something you feel, but something you do. Love is action. Love is a verb.
This creates a problem: How does one show love to Love Itself? What could mere mortals possibly offer to a God who, by definition, already has and holds everything in the tender embrace of the Divine Self? The answer, according to Jesus, is simple: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This commandment comes from the Torah as well, from Leviticus 19:18. It comes on the heels of Moses’ teaching about vengeance: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin… You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This commandment to love one’s neighbor speaks directly to the problem of partisan conflict, which was as active in Jesus’ day as it is in our own. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye and eventually the whole world goes blind.” Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa (who has worshiped in this very church), said similarly, “There is no future without forgiveness.”
The commandment to love receives its most explicit and biting explication later in the New Testament, in the first epistle of St. John, chapter 4:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Brothers and sisters, I put it to you today that the commandment to love God and to love one’s neighbor are not separate, but a single commandment from our Lord Jesus Christ himself. The Way of Love moves at heart of everything Jesus said and did in his life on Earth. In the venerable words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “If it ain’t about love, it ain’t about God.”
Notice that neither Jesus nor John, neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Archbishop Tutu, neither the Torah nor the Presiding Bishop puts any provisos or exceptions on their joint commandment to love.
I am as aware as each and every one of you that we have the misfortune of living in a moment when love seems more powerless and the people of this country seem more divided than ever.
What can love do when our elderly and most vulnerable neighbors are being stalked by an invisible predator that steals the air from their lungs while their families watch in horror from the other side of a reinforced glass window?
What can love do when the beautiful bodies of our black brothers and sisters are left bleeding in their beds and on the streets, full of bullet holes?
What can love do when temperatures rise and songs of praise to the Author of Life are silenced at the rate of a species every single day? What can love do?
Brothers and sisters, this is the very question that I put before this morning: What can love do?
The answer we give to this burning question is the only response that God is interested in hearing from us. It is the only offering we can make that is worthy of the name Worship.
Love, in all its living and active forms, is the embodied reality that has the power to overcome all the partisan divisions of Jesus’ day and our own. Love is the only appropriate response to the Sacred Oneness that gave birth to the universe.
Let us return to the biblical exhortations of St. John the Beloved, in chapter 3, verse 18 of his first epistle: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
As we go out into the world this week, let us honor that Sacred Oneness. In the words of St. John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
As we catch ourselves in the mirror while shaving or brushing our teeth, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
As we relate to family and friends, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
As we interact with coworkers and classmates, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
As we converse with neighbors and enemies alike, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
As we read the news headlines and prepare to head to the polls next week, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
I close, once again, with these memorable words from Presiding Bishop Curry, which he borrowed from Jesus, who borrowed them from the Torah of his ancestors: “Brothers and sisters: love God, love your neighbor, and while you’re at it… love yourself!”