Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
“Follow Jesus: Learning to See Everything through the Lens of Love”
Prayer: Open again your Word for us, by the power of your Holy Spirit, that we may be reminded of what is most important in this human, fragile life of ours, and that we may be guided by your most foundational commandments to discover life and joy and freedom in the midst of a complex and anxious world; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
The hymn we just sang is based upon Deuteronomy 6:1-9, the Shema as it is called. “Shema” comes from the Hebrew word “hear” or “listen”. This particular Scripture about loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength was central to synagogue worship; it was recited at the beginning of nearly every time of worship.
Jesus, raised in synagogue worship; knew from a young age the importance of this Hebrew scripture. Our New Testament reading, in which Jesus quotes the Shema, resulted from an encounter of Jesus with a thoughtful scribe, a teacher of the law.
We have often heard this text that became known as “the greatest commandment”, but perhaps we have not always noticed the context in which the greatest commandment was offered.
Jesus and his disciples have recently entered Jerusalem. They spend their nights out in the gardens at Bethany, under the olive trees, but their days are spent in and around the Temple, the center of Jewish politics, culture, and religion. On the Temple mount, Jesus’ conflicts with the Temple leadership began to intensify. On his first full day in town, Mark reports that Jesus drives out the money-changers and those who were buying and selling animals in the temple, effectively shutting down for the day the temple system, the economic support of the religious leaders.
When the chief priests and scribes hear it, they agree with one another to keep looking for a way to kill him. Over the next few days, as Jesus spends time in the temple, the chief priests, scribes, and elders barrage him with a series of questions that were meant to entrap him.
Depending upon whom you ask, questions of power, politics and religion are either topics not appreciated at the dinner table, because they tend to lead to division, or, for some at least, they are the only subjects really worth talking about.
The first entrapment question was about power: “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you, Jesus of Nazareth, this authority?” Next they send some Pharisees and Herodians to trap Jesus with a question of politics. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Roman Emporer or not?” Taxes always end up at the center of a political debate, just as we will witness this fall in Washington, DC. Taxes are sure to get a rise out of the crowd, to insert a wedge between a political candidate and his constituents.
For the third entrapment, they send some Sadduccees to ask Jesus a question of theology. Surely, if power or politics do not drive a wedge between Jesus and the crowds, then surely religious beliefs will. The Sadducees, who claimed that there was no resurrection, ask Jesus the question about whose wife a woman would be in the resurrection if she had married a succession of brothers who had each died and left her a widow. Jesus flatly tells them that their ideas about the resurrection are wrong and that they know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.
Questions of power, politics, and religion – topics that are sure to get a rise out of people, to trap an up and coming leader, to influence a malleable crowd and turn the tables on someone’s popularity so that the status quo could be maintained. But with each successive question, the leaders become more frustrated with their inability to trap Jesus, to find a reason to arrest him and put him on trial.
A certain scribe who had been listening to these exchanges noticed how well Jesus handled these questions. Perhaps he was just curious about this wise young rabbi or maybe this intellectual law professor thought he would enjoy a mental challenge. Whatever the case, the final question of the debate is a question about the law.
Hear now the Word of God from Mark 12:28-34.
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.”
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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I confess to losing my patience on occasion with someone who drives under the speed limit. Whether they are traveling in the left lane of the interstate, or they are “just out for a Sunday drive” in the neighborhood, just taking their time, I confess that I can become impatient as I move from one destination to the next responsibility. This past week, my whole perspective changed as I was clearly reminded of why some people may be driving so slowly.
Some of you are aware that on last Monday evening I took a really hard shot from a soccer ball to the lower right side of my back and suffered a couple of bruised ribs. Over the last week, it has been difficult to take deep breaths or to get in and out of the car. I have tried as much as possible to avoid coughing or laughing.
Even an unexpected burp or slight turn in the wrong manner can lead to a sharp and bitter pain, like someone is taking a knife and jabbing it in my side. If you have ever had broken or bruised ribs, you understand what I am talking about.
Long story short, for most of this week I have been driving really slowly. When a speed bump or a hard right turn becomes an occasion for potential pain, one tends to slow down and be more careful with how one drives. So when I encountered someone driving slowly this week, more slowly than what seems normal, then, instead of impatience, I thought to myself, “I wonder if they have broken ribs?!” I wonder what pain they may be experiencing, whether in their back or their hips or knees? Maybe they have a terrible case of arthritis? At least for a few days, my impatience was transformed into compassion.
Some years ago, I read an article about use of the large bass speakers in automobiles. They are not as popular as they once were, but occasionally someone will pull up next to you at a red light and you cannot help but hear the “thump, thump-thump” of their music. Their whole car will be shaking and sometimes your car begins to shake as well. The article claimed that this type of music could be a form of unintentional therapy. The “thump, thump-thump” of the bass speakers is akin to the sound of the mother’s heartbeat when a person is “en utero”, prior to one’s birth. So, instead of being annoyed or even offended by the person’s loud music, consider how that person, that human being, in the midst of their life’s challenges, may be subconsciously experiencing the most comforting sound that they have ever known. “thump, thump-thump…thump, thump-thump.”
In answering the question about the greatest law, Jesus impressed the learned scribe. Jesus obviously knew the Scriptures and had lifted up what was most important: In the midst of divisive debates among the most powerful, Jesus asserted that love for God and love for neighbor take precedence over everything else, even over the law, even over political persuasions, even over religious differences.
Some of you have read the articles about the compassion fatigue of hospital caregivers. With the combination of full hospitals and short-handed staffs, many healthcare professionals have been struggling over these past months. They have spoken publicly about their frustrations with those who have refused to get vaccinated. They are the ones who have to care for the ones who end up in intensive care beds struggling for their last breaths. And yet, almost to a person, when a very sick person is before them, these healthcare workers choose compassion over apathy.
They choose love for neighbor over a righteous stance regarding vaccinations. This past Monday morning, I read an article from WSBTV which offered pictures and brief biographies of the twenty four school employees in the state of Georgia who have died from the coronavirus in the past month, since August 11. There was 40 year old Frederico Foster, who has just started a new position as a band director in Savannah county. There was the 35 year old mother of two, Leigh Ann Garland Brackett, who taught preK in the Dalton area. There was the 24 year old new assistant basketball coach at Shorter College in Rome, Ryan Dupree.
There was Norma Jean Carter, age 55, a school bus driver and devout Jehovah’s Witness in Bulloch County. There was Jamie Morris, 40 year old father of three who coached middle school soccer and football in Pierce County. And the list goes on and on and on….
On several occasions during this pandemic, I have experienced significant touch points, moments when the human tragedy before us comes clearly into focus. This past Monday morning, reading that article about the personal stories of those school employees, was one of those moments. We cannot yet imagine the long term complicated and corporate grief that this pandemic will leave in its wake. 200 times more person have died in the past 18 months from the virus than died in the tragedies of 9-11-2001.
The Temple leaders in Jesus’ day, the well-educated, rich and well-known priests and rabbis, had found themselves caught up in a system which, in many respects, kept them at a distance from the suffering of the common people. Many of the common people could not afford the sacrifices that would allow them access to the Temple or the priests. Many of the common people toiled at daily work that rendered them unclean to enter the Temple mount.
Though the Temple leaders knew that the system was burdensome to the people, that same system kept the leaders comfortably in power. Their lifestyles were supported by their highly organized system of burnt offerings and sacrifices. Their way of living depended upon the common people following their prescribed precepts, whether or not this system was life-giving for the people and faithful to God’s desires.
Jesus recognized that the religious leaders had blinders on, blinders that placed heavy burdens upon the common people they were supposed to shepherd. According to scholars, there were some 613 precepts which the religious leaders taught the people to follow. There were some 248 positive commands and 365 negative prohibitions, and the Rabbis spent untold hours debating which of these 613 precepts were the most important.
Some of the leaders were realizing that they had become too caught up in the system. Some had realized that they had lost all perspective, and had forgotten what was most important. Jesus came to set them free, to free the people and free their leaders to live, to love, to worship together in joy and in faithfulness before God.
He brought together the Shema – the central teaching of synagogue worship – with a lesser known text from Leviticus 19:8 regarding love for neighbor, In doing so, Jesus created a new lens, a filter, if you will, through which all of daily life and religion could forever be distilled. Many of us have experienced the true wonder and joy and walking out of an optometrist office with a new lease on life. Perhaps you have experienced this?
Someone tells you that you really need to get your eyesight checked. So you go in and sit in a chair where you are shown a bunch of blurry letters on the wall. Then, they pull the large optometrist wheels in front of your face and click through a series of lenses until you are fully able to see what had heretofore been unclear. Not too many days later, you receive your own pair of glasses or little round contacts that don’t have much more substance than Saran wrap. You walk outside and then you cannot help but pause in wonder as you notice not only the trees, but their individual leaves. You notice that you can read the numbers and letters on a car’s license plate on the far side of the parking lot. You can read the road signs that had only just an hour before been nothing but a blur.
Following Jesus can be an effective lens for seeing more clearly. When we commit ourselves anew to following Jesus, which begins with placing love for God and neighbor at the forefront, that which was once blurry may quickly come into focus.
For the most part, the religious authorities were not bad people; they just had a blurry lens. They ran the system of their day for the sake of the system. They followed their precepts for the sake of their own self-interests. They may have desired to be faithful to God, yet over time they had lost focus. Their actions no longer demonstrated love for God or for their neighbor. During this pandemic, many have been reviewing their priorities. Many have been examining what is most important in their lives. We realize that a new age is about to emerge and we have also realized that we all have some agency about how we will live in this new age, about how we will work, and spend our days, and relate to the people around us.
The debates over questions of power, of politics, of religion will continue. There will be ever new debates about taxes and government programs. There will be theological discussions about abortion and marriage and other serious matters that threaten to divide church and community.
What will be the lens through which we look? What will be the filter through which we decide?
How might we all learn to filter everything through love for God and love for neighbor?
“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 you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This is the sum of all the commandments.
This is far more important than any economic or legal or religious system upon which our daily lives are built. Jesus came to set us free. Jesus came so that we may live in right relationship with God, and that we may learn love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The writer of Deuteronomy makes this so clear:
“do these things and you shall live…
Obey God’s commands and your days will be long.
Follow God’s commandments, follow God’s Son, so that it may go well with you, so that you may be fruitful in this land that flows with milk and honey.”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church