Thursday, March 10, 2011

"Ands" and "Buts"

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"  Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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 the second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 
Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that 'he is one, and besides him there is no other'; and 'to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and 'to love one's neighbor as oneself,'-- this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Did you get that last part?  It bears repeating:

After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Look, I know that Jesus changed water into wine, he walked on water, he gave sight to the blind, helped the lame to walk, and even raised a guy from the dead: a pretty impressive body of work by any standard.  But, seriously, I don’t think he gets enough credit for this one.  I mean, here’s Jesus, surrounded by a the religious elite, experts in the things of God, guys who have a handle on the-way-things-are, the-way-things-should-be, and the-way-things-will-be, guys who know that they are in tight with God but have their doubts about everyone else, and when he gets done speaking—silence.
They. Have. Nothing. Left. To. Say.

As you can imagine, I spend quite a lot of time around really religious people, and there is no lack of words or opinions in that group.  What is usually lacking is silence, along with a lack of humility behind the words and opinions.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Wherever two or more Baptists are gathered, there will be three or more opinions.”  Well, we Baptists are perhaps too hard on ourselves—we don’t hold a monopoly on opinions or over-confidence in those opinions.  What Jesus was dealing with had long been a problem and continues to this day, which is why the silence was so remarkable if not miraculous.

The word that stops them in their tracks is “and”.  They were all good with the greatest commandment being “Love God”.  This was the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, and every Israelite knew it by heart from the earliest age.  But there was always a period after the statement to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength.  They believed in loving neighbor—defined as fellow Israelites who also were religiously observant—but this love was clearly secondary to loving God.  Loving your neighbor was important, but loving God was necessary for covenant membership.  Once in the club you should love the others in the club, but the only entrance requirement was loving God.  With that one word “and” Jesus removed the secondary and somewhat optional status of the second commandment.  In fact, he went even further, because the question was which (one) commandment is first, but Jesus’s answer was that the greatest commandment is actually two, essentially combining these two commandments into one with two parts.  Neither one is ascendant, neither one is primary.  To love God is to love your neighbor.  That this is how the earliest Christians understood Jesus is clear from, among others, the Apostle John, who wrote, 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.  (1 John 20-21)  And with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which was simply an illustration of Jesus’ injunction to love your enemies, Jesus made it clear that everyone is our neighbor—not just our fellow religious club members, or fellow citizens, or fellow whatevers.

With one little “and” Jesus shut the mouths of the religious elite.  We should follow suit.  “Love God and Love Everyone.”  ‘Nuff said, end of story, end of debate, nothing left to say.

But we don’t follow suit, unfortunately.  We roll right past the “and” by adding a “but”. 
  • But my neighbor is an unbeliever
  • But my neighbor is a jerk
  • But my neighbor is immoral 
  • But my neighbor ignores me
  • But my neighbor has hurt me
  • But my neighbor hasn’t repented
  • But my neighbor hasn’t apologized 
  • But my neighbor is trying to hurt my country
  • But my neighbor is wrong
  • But, but, but, but, but

Some people look for reasons not to love God, and we may be proud of ourselves for not doing that, but if we are constantly looking for reasons (excuses) to not love our neighbors, are we any different?  If it’s impossible to love God and not love your neighbor, then looking for a reason not to love your neighbor is the same as looking for a reason not to love God.


That’ll shut you up.

Jesus said “and”. 

Everyone got quiet.

No one dared to add a “but”.

We shouldn’t either.

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