A sermon preached at (an empty) Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
March 22, 2020
Jesus has had lots of questions sent his way as he’s been journeying to Jerusalem. We have discussed how some of the questions were possibly ill advised. And some were intended to make the questioner look good. And some were just wrong wrong wrong. But this one seems to come to Jesus with sincerity, from a scribe. “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus answers the scribe’s question about one commandment with two commandments.
One from Deuteronomy.
One from Leviticus.
Jesus gives the abridged version in his answer, because he knew his audience would know the original story. I’m going to read you the original passages, because most of us don’t spend much time with Leviticus and Deuteronomy, I’m guessing. And in the days we find ourselves living in, the way we respond to our neighbors is ever more important.
The Leviticus passage comes from a longer list of instructions on how to treat each other:
Lev 19:13-18 You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling-block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.
You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
The Deuteronomy passage is in chapter 6:
Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long…
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Jesus connects these two passages into one commandment. Because you cannot love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind without then loving your neighbor. And loving your neighbor is how we love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.
Jesus doesn’t say you can choose between these two different ways of being. It doesn’t work to say “I love God and we have a close personal relationship, but I don’t care about anyone but myself.”
You don’t have to be Christian to love your neighbor, of course. Plenty of non-religious people do a lovely job, actually, of loving their neighbors as themselves. But it is also a challenge, some days, to really love your neighbor.
It’s one thing to love the neighbor you like. It’s another thing altogether to love the neighbor you don’t like, or the one you don’t understand, or the one who hates you, or the one who is hard to love because of mental health problems, or addiction, or the way they hoard toilet paper.
Loving your neighbor is hard. And for me, in those moments where loving my neighbor seems so difficult that I stop even trying, it is an indication I’ve forgotten to love God with my whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
When the scribe asks for one simple answer, Jesus tells him it is complicated. And it requires a lot. A lot of trust. A lot of courage. Jesus tells him it requires a willingness to reconsider how you’ve always understood the commandments because we have to start being kind to each other and we’re running out of time.
Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem, and to the cross. Now, he’s there, in Jerusalem, at the Temple. The time he has to get his disciples to understand the kingdom of God is coming to an end.
We aren’t running out of time in the same way Jesus was, perhaps. But it does feel like time is of the essence as time has stopped, and our meetings have canceled, and businesses are closing, and the future is hard to plan for at the moment. The time we have is right now. We can’t plan to love our neighbors at some point in the future. The time we have for that task is right now. I suspect when we look back on these days, we will reflect on what was difficult, but also on what the gifts were. If all we learn is how to be present, to not take the future for granted, that will be a gift indeed.
The future is no place, to place your better days, as Dave Mathews sings.
Now is the time to love our neighbors by staying home as much as possible and by not gathering in large crowds.
Now is also the time to love our neighbors by finding new ways to connect.
Now is the time to love our neighbors with health risks, mobility limitations, and anxiety.
Now is the time to love our neighbors with radical generosity, not with hoarding.
Jesus warns his followers to beware of people who act very pious and seek honor in the Temple and pray long prayers while at the same time they devour widows houses. Then we’re told:
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
I think about the widow, offering her two small coins. This passage is often preached as praising the widow for giving so generously out of her poverty, but I’m not sure that is Jesus’ point. He doesn’t criticize the rich people for their generous sums. He doesn’t actually praise the poor widow, either.
What he observes is that her gift is larger than everyone else’s because she has just given away the money she needed to live on. The “truly I tell you” is one of Jesus’ trademark “pay attention” comments. And he isn’t talking to the widow. He’s talking to the disciples. He’s talking to us.
“Remember that thing a few verses back”, Jesus says, “when I told you to love God with your heartsoulstrengthandmind, and to love your neighbor as yourself? Well, here’s one of your neighbors. She’s a widow. And she only has two small coins. That’s it. All she has to live on. And she’s offering it to God, because she gets the heart, soul, strength, and mind piece. But if your neighbor only has two small coins, how well are you understanding the “love your neighbor” part of the commandment?”
We aren’t called to love God in isolation, as if God is the only relationship that matters. We aren’t called to love our neighbor just a little. We’re called to love them as if they were us. We’re to put it all in, and leave nothing in reserve.
If we love our neighbor as we love God, the widow should have more than two coins to her name, or two rolls of toilet paper, as the case may be. If we are people who love God, in other words, people would be able to see it because our neighbor would have more than two coins.
We’ve all, no doubt, heard stories on the news these past weeks that have worried and scared us. I’ve heard stories that frustrated me. And I’ve heard stories of people being radically generous, and putting the well being of others ahead of their own comfort or safety. I hope we will notice, as we move through these days, who the real heroes are in society. Doctors, nurses, grocery store clerks, teachers, small business owners, etc—they are the people reminding us of our capacity to care for each other.
Andrade’s Mexican Restaurant is offering free meals to people who don’t have food to eat. Riverside Hotel is teaming up with Interfaith Sanctuary to provide housing for homeless people. Medical professionals are working long past their normal hours to be able to keep us safe. People are volunteering to deliver groceries to people with health risks.
Lots of people are putting in their two coins these days.
I’ve been reading more poetry than usual while I’ve been cooped up at home, and here’s a poem by Mary Oliver called “Moments”. It is in her book “Felicity”.
There are moments that cry out to be fulfilled.
Like, telling someone you love them.
Or giving your money away, all of it.
Your heart is beating, isn’t it?
You’re not in chains, are you?
There is nothing more pathetic than caution
when headlong might save a life,
even, possibly, your own.
Maybe this is what the widow and her two coins is supposed to remind us. Headlong might save a life, and so we love the Lord with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. We love our neighbor as if they were our very own selves. Headlong might save a life. The widow seems to get that the life it saves could be someone else’s. And if we love our neighbor as ourself, the life we save could be our own.