Monday, October 30, 2017

Love Your Neighbor

'The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
You shall not render an unjust judgment; 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.'
--Leviticus 19: 1-2, 15-18

You might want to mark this day down and remember it. Today an Episcopal priest is going to talk about Leviticus.  Crazy, huh?!  While Leviticus may be that book that we choose to ignore because 1) it has a ton of rules and regulations and 2) it contains some VERY hard passages, it also has some essential pieces that defined what it meant to belong to the Children of Israel. These passages would be picked up by the rabbis down through the years, taught and retaught, interpreted and reinterpreted, until a rabbi from Nazareth named Jesus not only taught them but embodied them, as well.  Perhaps none of those passages is greater or has more significance for us as followers of Jesus, than Leviticus 19: 18—“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”   Indeed, Leviticus DOES contain one of  the most important lines in all of Scripture, it's just NOT the one that a number of so-called Christians choose to remember!

'When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”' 
--Matthew 22: 34-40

On the Tuesday of the last week of his life, Jesus was bombarded with questions by scribes and Pharisees.  Earlier in the day they asked him whether it was lawful to pay taxes, and if you read last week's blog you know how that played out.  Later in that same day one of the Pharisees, this one a lawyer, comes to test him and asks Jesus, “Which commandment is the greatest?”  This wasn’t exactly an unusual request in fact, it happened pretty regularly, as folks often wanted to know which commandments an individual rabbi thought were most important.  There is a story in the Talmud that reflects this, as a matter of fact.

In that story a Gentile approaches two well-known Pharisees in Jesus’ day named Shammai and Hillel.  The Gentile asks them to teach him the whole of Torah—the entire Jewish law—while he stands on one foot.  Shammai calls him an idiot and drives him away using a broomstick, because, he says, the Torah cannot be crystalized.  But Hillel, calls the man back, has him put one foot behind him, and begins to teach him, saying, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary thereon; go and learn it.”  

An artist's depiction of the Talmudic story of the Gentile and the Pharisee Hillel.

Hillel and Jesus seem to have been cut from the save cloth, for when answers the lawyer he gives a similar response.  He first quotes Deuteronomy 6: 5, which is the single most important passage in all of the Hebrew Testament.  It is called the shema and says, "Here O Israel, the Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind."  Jesus then adds on Leviticus 19: 18, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  It is Detueronmy 6: 5 that Jews to this day mount on their doorposts in containers called mezuzots and on their arms and heads in boxes called tefilin.  It is the foundation of the Abrahamic faiths, that God is one and that we must love God with our whole selves.  It is Leviticus 19: 18, though, that is at the core of all practical spirituality, for Jews and Christians (and even Muslims!).  How do we put the first commandment into use?  By doing the second.  How do we love God?  By loving our neighbor.  It's fascinating that when he is asked what the greatest commandment is (singular), Jesus puts these two commandments from separate books of the Hebrew Testament together; after all, one cannot have one without the other.

Love God, love your neighbor.  It’s so familiar to us that it’s become something of a Christian cliché.  Heck, in the Episcopal Church our traditional celebration of the Eucharist, which we call Rite I, still includes these two these two commandments in what is known as the Summary of the Law.  Yet behind the familiarity is the radical meaning of these two commands, which, I suspect, is the reason Jesus answers that lawyer’s question the way that he does.  To love God above everything else means giving to God what belongs to God:  our heart, soul, and mind.  These belong to God, not to Caesar or any other empire. Again, if you read last week you’ll remember how Jesus’ overall message is one that reminds people that supreme power and authority of this world belongs not to the principalities instituted by human beings but to God.  This is radical monotheism, for if God is one, and there is no other Lord, then the lords of this world—Caesar and all the others—ultimately have no real power.  Thus, to love one’s neighbor as oneself means to refuse to accept the divisions and oppressive systems these powers and principalities have created, between the respected and marginalized, the righteous and sinners, the rich and poor, the friends and enemies, the Jews and Gentiles.  Those are just the ones we can name from Jesus' time, but we can add plenty from today's world.  If we truly love God and we truly believe God is our only Lord, then we cannot help but love those whom God has created.  Because it is only when we love God that other people truly become lovable to us.  We cannot love others unless we love God.

Throughout the Bible we are told that human beings are not just a collection of bones and dust.  We are not a cosmic accident, but we are made in the very image of God.  Again, this is something of a cliché like loving God and neighbor, but we are.  All of us!  It is for that reason that we are, in fact, lovable.  Take away that reality, make people think they are not lovable or made in God's image, and that’s when the worst of humanity shines through. 

This is why, I think, the line from Leviticus is so important.  What does love your neighbor as yourself mean when we don’t love ourselves?  When I look at the world and see some pretty cruel people, when I see people do some pretty awful things to others and say some pretty awful things about others, I often think that they are acting not so much from a place of hate for the other person but a place of hate for themselves.  Love your neighbor as yourself also means that we must actually love ourselves.  We must actually believe that we are worthwhile, that we are made in the image of God, that our shame and all the hurtful things that others say about us are not enough to kill that divine spark within us.  For when we give in to our shame and cannot believe that we are, in fact, good, then we are so often prone to lashing out at others.  But if we can love ourselves, then it is possible to love others.  For both of those kinds of love flow from the never-failing, never-ending love of God.

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it?  Love God, love each other.  It's anything but simple.  It’s the hardest thing in the world to do.  We humans have a tendency to be pretty selfish, to horde what belongs to us, and to only look out for ourselves, especially when the chips are down.  Love is pretty radical, even miraculous.  To truly love God means to give everything we have to God and for God.   To truly love our neighbor as ourselves is to first see ourselves as being made in the image of God, worthy of divine love, and then to see in the face of the other, especially the one who so very different from ourselves, that same image, and to remind that person that he or she is also worthy of such amazing love.  To love God and neighbor means to be self-less, rather than selfish, to give what we have on behalf of those who are in need, and to look out for others before looking out for ourselves.  Jesus didn’t just teach this, he lived it.  Make no mistake, brothers and sisters, for the rest of us, it ain’t easy.  If it was, we wouldn’t need Jesus, would we? 

Thanks be to God that we have Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith and the one who knew God’s love more than anyone who has ever lived.  And thanks be to God that we have Leviticus—yeah, I said it—and this seemingly simple but powerful commandment.  So I wonder, what does Leviticus 19: 18 mean to you?  How will you embody it and live it day after day?  Love your neighbor as yourself

Monday, October 23, 2017

Render Unto Caesar

'The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

One of the things that I love most about Jesus is that he very seldom acted from a place of duality; that is, from an either/or position.  Jesus wasn't the kind of guy who would say something like, "You’re either with me or against me, for example!"  Throughout his ministry, though, Jesus dealt with people who did have this frame of mind:  it’s either A or B, and there is no such thing as C!  Yet Jesus always seemed to find another, unexpected third way.
 We could think of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as one great big third way, which takes the either/or dynamic of Jesus' time and flips it on its head.  For us 2000 years later it all makes sense, obviously, because we know Jesus was right, but when we consider the experiences of the communities of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John it becomes pretty radical to imagine Jesus giving those folks an option that they had never before considered.  There were many folks who operated from a dualistic model, but our Gospel this week highlights two particular groups:  the Pharisees and the Herodians.  

The Pharisees were the religious zealots, who pushed hard against the Roman occupation by insisting that Jews must fully embrace their Jewish identify, and how they did this was to obey every letter of the Law. To do so meant not associating with Gentiles (like the despised Romans), keeping the Sabbath holy, and obeying all of the dietary laws.  The Pharisees looked at Jesus, who did not always follow these rules, and said he was bad Jew.  

The Herodians were political collaborators.  Their name came from King Herod, the Jewish King of Judea who had been installed by the Romans in order to appease the Jews; after all, the Jews would not abide a foreigner being in charge of them.  These folks, along with the tax collectors and other collaborators, benefited from the Roman occupation.  As they looked at Jesus they saw someone who was a seditionist, a trouble-maker, and they were sure that he was going to start an uprising against Rome, which would cause problems for their fellow Jews.  These are the kinds of folks that Jesus finds himself caught between.   

We see this play out in the Gospel, as these two groups conspire with each other to trick Jesus and humiliate him in front of a huge crowd.  It is Tuesday of Holy Week when we pick up the story, and Jesus has already entered Jerusalem and flipped over the tables in the temple.  Everybody is watching him, and these two groups particularly are waiting for him to make a mistake.  They then approach Jesus, butter him up a little, and then drop this bomb on him:  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not? 

An artist's rendering of Matthew 22: 15-22.

Well, this is a pickle, isn’t it?  If Jesus sides with the Pharisees and says no, it’s not lawful, don’t pay taxes to the emperor, he risks being arrested right then and there and being branded a seditionist.  If he says yes and sides with the Herodians  he risks discrediting himself with the crowd and coming off as a Roman sympathizer and a bad Jew.  The mastery here of the Pharisees and Herodians is that no matter what Jesus says the response is going to be unpopular, and his movement may very well wither away.

This is where Jesus’ brilliance shines through, where he offers that third way.  He does not actually answer their question, at least not in the manner which they expect.  Jesus asks for a coin—did you ever notice he didn’t carry any money himself??—and asks the questioners whose face and title is on it.  They reply, "The emperor's."  (The title, written under Caesar's image, read "Son of God.")  Right there Jesus has ticked his questioners and .  How?  Coins were not used as payment in most ancient cultures until the days of great military empires like Persia and Rome.  The coins bore the image of the conquering king and were used as a means of keeping the occupied and defeated peoples in-check.  When Jews in Roman-occupied Palestine DID use coins, though, they refused to use the ones with Caesar’s image on them because that breaks the second commandment—“thou shalt make no graven image”—instead they used one with a palm leaf on it, the symbol of Jewish resistance against the Romans. The coin produced here, of course, bears the image of Caesar and the inscription that read “long live the Son of God.”  Because, remember, Caesar believed he was, in fact, the Son of God.  By having that coin on them Jesus’ questioners are exposed as collaborators, and without even answering their question Jesus has discredited them and the Roman occupation that they represent.

But then he goes a little further, saying “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  (Or in the more romantic language of the King James Version:  "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.")  Do you see what he does there?  Jesus separates Caesar from God, which, again, seems obvious to us now, but during that time one did not dare make the claim (at least publicly) that the emperor and God were not one in the same; after all, every Caesar claimed to be divine.  Some have taken this phrase to mean that Jesus is saying that we Christians are, in fact, folks with dual citizenship, and as such must obey our civil authorities, just as we obey our heavenly authority.  Moreover, passages like this one were preached regularly in the 1930s and 1940s during the rise of fascism in Europe, which resulted in many Christians remaining silent during some remarkably horrible times because they had been told by their preachers that Jesus intends for us to fully obey and render unto our authority figures. But this isn’t really an endorsement of Rome, hence the disinction between Caesar and God and calling attention to the fact that the denarius had false title inscribed for Caesar.  Had Jesus wanted to endorse Rome he would’ve just said, “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar.”  But he doesn’t.  Instead, he mocks the very institution of occupation, which Rome represents.  Furthermore, as Shane Claiborne points out in his excellent book Jesus for President, Jesus leaves it up to the hearer to define what is Caesar’s and what is God’s.  Think about that for second. Jesus never actually says who gets what between God and the emperor.  Rather, he lets the crowd discern and make that decision for themselves.  This is the third way!  It's a harder, more complicated way than the dualistic approach, but it is the masterful method with which Jesus weaved his Gospel tapestry!

If we think about it, what does actually belong to "Caesar?"  What does actually belong to any power or principality?  Their brand may be stamped on the money, but they can have it, Jesus says because God’s stamp is on EVERYTHING! All things that live, move, and have their being have God's stamp on them, even those Caesars who claimed to be gods themselves.  Sure, authority figures can issue money and build towers and temples and monuments to themselves, but eventually the rust and moths consume them and they fall into the dust.  Yet God continues to endure!  And God will continue to do what God has always done:  breathe life into the dust.   

So the question for us isn’t so much whether or not we should pay our taxes.  The question for us to ponder is the same one that that crowd on Holy Tuesday was left with, the third way of Jesus:  what is Caesar's and what is God's?  Many churches, including mine, are smack-dab in the middle of their stewardship campaigns.  Could there be a more fitting Gospel??  I invite you, then, brothers and sisters, to prayerfully ask yourself, as you take stock of all of your stuff:  what of mine belongs to "Caesar" and what belongs to God?  May we all have the grace to ponder that question, and may we all give and act accordingly. 

Cover for Shane Claiborne's Jesus For President, which you can purchase by clicking here.