In today’s Gospel lesson, a lawyer-type Pharisee approaches Jesus with what he thinks is a trick question: “What’s the most important commandment in the law,” he asks. Keep in mind that this question about the law was coming from a lawyer. This smarty-pants knows the answer; he's just trying to stump Jesus. Because, in Jewish law, no one law is more important than the other. Dietary laws are as vital as cleanliness codes are as vital as laws regarding forgiveness. There is no one, single most important law.
Now, even though Jesus had every right to thumb his nose at Counselor Smarty Pants, of course he didn't. Jesus is not in the shaming business, and this day is no exception. Instead, Jesus suggests that the lawyer consider something totally different all together. Instead of narrowing it down to a single law, Jesus invites them to live differently. To lead with love instead of law.
Lead with love. Love God with all you’ve got. And love your neighbors. If you can do these things—and I believe you can—all of the other laws and commandments will flow like gravy.
Carrying groceries in New York City, in the snow, is never easy. One day I fell. One of those hard falls that they draw in cartoons— my feet slipped right out from under me, and I landed right on my tailbone. Of course, groceries were everywhere—I distinctly remember a jar of peanut butter rolling into the street—and I felt stuck. I had nineteen layers on underneath my full-length coat—upright, I looked like an up-turned sofa walking down the street. But lying there on the street I was momentarily helpless and undoubtedly pathetic. One man, an older gentleman with a cane, propped himself and his cane on a trashcan and offered me both of his hands. He helped me up.
When we were face to face, I thanked him profusely, and he put his hand on mine and said, “You’re welcome, Shelly.” And walked away.
I figured that I must have reminded him of his daughter or granddaughter. Someone he loves named Shelly. He helped me up like I was family.
And then like a flash, it occurred to me—wait. He could be flesh and blood. After all, I was adopted as an infant. It’s true that I’ve never been interested in finding my birth family, but that day on the street it occurred to me that anyone could be my biological family, technically. That day, dripping in street snow with a sore rump, I may have looked like a walking sofa, but I began to see strangers a little differently.
Never mind the mental stability of the human angel who propped his cane on a trash can to help a fallen woman in the snow. Never mind that there’s really no chance that he was my grandfather. The point is that he helped me that day, because he thought I was family. He didn’t pluck my hair for a DNA test before he helped me up. He just…did. He treated me, a complete stranger, with the care of grandfather.
I’m blessed to be adopted for hundreds of reasons. I’ve learned so many things through it. And that day on the sidewalk, I realized that we are all called to treat each other like flesh and blood. At the end of the day, who’s to say that the man with the cane isn’t my grandfather? Not me. And life is too short to hassle with the trifles of figuring that out in a moment of need.
In the 1st century, there really wasn’t such a thing as ‘self-love.’ No self-help books, no therapy, no such thing as an inner-child, no Dr. Phil. In the Bible, there is not even a glimmer of the notion for “self-esteem”. The concept of loving yourself before others was non-existent in the culture. So, when Jesus commands, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself,” most scholarship points to flesh and blood. Yourself as family. Love your neighbor the way you love your brother, your sister, your kiddos, your soulmate.
This is a massive call. The strange, the poor, the powerless, the deserted, the mean, the no good, the fallen in the snow—in the eyes of God, all one family. Think for a minute about the people in your world who are family—at its best, it doesn’t matter who they’re voting for, what they smell like, how much money they have, or even how kind or mean you’ve been to each other. At its best, family is like one never-ending Christmas dinner. One table, a lot of nourishment, and a ton of love, no matter what.
If we take this command seriously—to love EVERYONE like we love our family—we are forced into a new way of living. You’ll see the individuals in the world in a new light. Your money, your resources, your kindness will spread further and miraculously thicker. Your way of life will put God’s Love before everything else. A way of life that begs the question—Is Love The Bottom Line? If it is—you’re on the right track.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’"
That pretty much sums it up, right?
Just below the surface of these words is a mission to see things in a new way—a new way to navigate through this journey. It is a call to take a step back, to change our perspective, and to see that everything we do should be under the umbrella of God’s great mysterious love for us. And then we take all that God-given Love Stuff, and we spread it on thick to everyone, everywhere. Our brothers and sisters at God’s Table, God’s Family. We all, all, all get to be members.
Thanks be to God!