THE REV. ROBERTO DESANDOLI
In the reading we have just heard from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is engaged in a thoughtful discussion of God’s Law with a Temple Scribe, an expert in God’s Law.
In this conversation between the Scribe and Jesus, there is a familiar “Gospel turn” whereby the teacher becomes the student and the student becomes the teacher.
At the beginning of the encounter, the Scribe asks Jesus to name the most important commandment. The commandment that is “first of all.”
We as readers do not know if the Scribe is seeking to test Jesus’ knowledge and faith, to trap him with rhetoric, or if he earnestly does want to seek Jesus’ teaching.
By the time we reach the end of the reading, we may not know what the Scribe’s original intentions were, but we do know that he is one to at least give credit where credit is due.
“30 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
And in reply to the answer, the Scribe is both honorable and honoring, saying “You are right, teacher.”
This simple and respectful exchange between Jesus and the Scribe may not seem like Good News at first but if you read through Jesus’ other interactions with the Scribes and Pharisees, you will quickly notice that the conversations often do not go so smoothly.
More often than not Jesus is not spoken to with respect and honour.
More often than not those who challenge Jesus are not forthright in their intentions.
More often than not these conversations serve to deepen the divide between Jesus and the Temple Authorities, rather than bring about peaceful dialogue.
I think we can see much of our modern world and modern politics in such interactions:
There are many conversations in our world that seem to only deepen divides rather than create respectful understanding.
“Debates” on hot-button issues such as sexuality, abortion, gun control, drug policy, and immigration seem to only serve as competitions for 7-second soundbites.
Political conversations in Ottawa, Regina, and the other provincial capitals of this country seem to be more about scoring points against political enemies than about openly learning from one another’s different views.
And South of the border, the so-called “dialogue” between Republicans and Democrats in the United States has broken down to an unprecedented degree of suspicion and partisanship.
So it is Good News in the world and in the Gospel, when a conversation between two potential rivals finally goes right.
S: Teacher, which commandment is first of all?
J: 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.”
S: You are right teacher.
J: And you Scribe…you are not far from the Kingdom of God.
After that, no one dared to ask him any question.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all of our difficult conversations went so well?
It’s Good News for the world when there is mutual respect and care in a conversation.
It’s Good News for the world, friends, but it’s bad news for sermon writers.
At the risk of taking all of the respect and comfort out of the conversation between Jesus and the Scribe, I would like to shift gears a little bit and ask just one question. In my mind it’s a question that begs to be asked and perhaps would have been asked by another Scribe that day had they dared to.
The question is this: “What does ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ really mean?”
Obviously, it’s an instruction to treat others as you would have them treat you…the Golden Rule…of course…
But what if we are not practising a healthy love of self?
Isn’t it possible, isn’t it likely that many of us are loving our neighbors more than we love ourselves? Or better than we love ourselves?
For many of us it’s easy to love our neighbors; it’s easy to love others; because other people deserve love.
Many of us, whether consciously or not, believe that we are somehow less deserving of the love we so readily show our neighbor… and at the risk of upsetting the applecart, at the risk of twisting the lesson, at the risk of speaking against Jesus’ teaching…I think we ought to spend a bit of time thinking about this reality.
The reason I couldn’t help myself in taking a pin and deflating the respect and peace of this reading is that I was reading it alongside our Old Testament text from this morning. A reading from the Book of Ruth.
The beginning of the Book of Ruth, that we have heard this morning, opens on a woman named Naomi. A woman who was made to undergo terrible hardship after she and her family fled famine in their homeland and ended up in Moab.
At the second verse we are told:
They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These two took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the second Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion (that is, her sons) also died, so that [Naomi] was left without her two sons and her husband.
Let’s imagine this series of events for a moment, let’s place ourselves into Naomi’s story:
Imagine for a moment that you are a mother of two boys.
You are a mother of two boys and you live in a country that is ruled by largely incompetent and cruel despots. (“The time of the judges” in biblical terms)
You live in a country that does not know justice, you have a good family to support you but there is a great famine in the land. There is drought, there is blight. Almost nothing is growing in the fields and the food that is growing is dying off.
As the famine continues, you become refugees.
You leave your home; your house, your friends, your neighbors, all of your possessions, all of the memories you’ve made there.
You leave your homeland; your nation, your culture, your language, the only rhythm of life that you have ever known.
You leave your homeland and you go into a strange land. A country that you’re not even sure you’ll be welcome in. A country that may just as easily be hostile as welcoming.
But you persevere. You find a place to live, you find that the drought is not so bad here, that you are able to actually survive a little easier.
And then…your husband dies. As refugees and as people living in the days long before the “social safety net” you aren’t sure that you will survive without the head of your household and yet, somehow, by God’s Grace alone, you do.
Life takes on a new kind of “normal”: you and your sons are surviving, despite the odds.
Your two sons adapt to their new country. They meet women from the new country and they get married. Things are starting to go even a little better.
And after ten years, ten years of dramatic life changes, and hardship, and anxiety, you feel like you can almost exhale again. To believe that things might be ok.
And then the unthinkable, your two sons, your only family, your only supports in the whole world, also die.
So, what do you do?
Well, if you’re Naomi, you decide to go home. Even though you’re unsure how much of a “home” you actually have waiting for you.
According to the Scripture, Naomi set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah.
But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.”
After all of the things these three women have gone through together:
After the unexpected joy of becoming an unlikely family.
After the unimaginable pain of losing the two men (the sons and the husbands) who united these women in this family bond.
After the sickening fear of not knowing “what then, shall we do?”.
After all of this, Naomi tells them the equivalent of “That’s OK.”:
“Mother-in-law we will go with you to your homeland”
“No really. You could die from the journey alone, let us help you carry this burden.”
“No, it’s not OK, we don’t want you to leave us Mother-in-law, we love you.”
How often have each of us said “That’s OK” when we or it was anything but?
How often have we declined a simple favour from a friend or a stranger:
“You’re flying out tomorrow? Let me drive you.”
“No, that’s OK”
“Those groceries look heavy, let me help put those in your car.”
“No, that’s OK”
Situations like these may not have great consequences; we can tolerate the money spent on the cab we took to the airport or the sore shoulder we got from being prideful with our grocery bags, but what about those situations that are more serious?
The author of Ruth tells us this after Naomi attempted to send her two daughters-in-law away.
Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.”
Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
I don’t know about you. But to me this doesn’t sound like a “That’s OK” situation. This sounds more like a “I really, really need your help my daughter-in-law but I do not know how to ask. I do not know how to love myself enough to believe that I deserve your help” kind of situation.
In a sense Naomi did follow the greatest commandment; even if it was the letter and not the spirit of the law.
Naomi did love her neighbors, that is to say her daughters-in-law.
Naomi did want her daughters-in-law to be safe. She didn’t want them to undergo the hardship that she herself was about to undergo in becoming a refugee for the second time in her life.
Naomi did love these two women who were formerly neighbors.
And despite her pain and her anger at God; despite her belief that “the hand of God had turned against her” she did also love God at least enough to obey the call to return to the land of her people.
However, I say again, it does not follow the spirit of the greatest commandment to love only neighbor and God without also practising love of yourself.
Though I do not pretend that there is anything easy or simple about overcoming an inability to love oneself, I think we can agree that we do not fully “love our neighbor as ourself” if we do not love ourselves in a way that honours God.
Naomi was not “OK.”
Naomi would not have been “OK” if she had sent her daughters-in-law away.
And oftentimes we are not OK when we claim to be.
The Good News of this reality is that God’s Grace can find us even here.
Even if we are in the pit of despair; even if we are in the pit of self-judgement or self-hatred, God’s Grace can interrupt us with a love that will not go away when we tell it to.
This is the reality of the cross.
Humanity did not know how to love itself enough to accept Christ. And so we sent Christ to the cross, for our sins. We did not know how to accept a love from God that we did not understand and so we tried to kill this love.
The Good News is that despite even this inability to accept a love of self, God still succeeded in getting the world God wanted. God always gets the world God wants:
A world that is redeemed by Christ.
A world that includes not only the pain of the cross but also the joy of the resurrection.
A world in which people can share a love that does not simply go away when we say “That’s OK.”
Our reading from The Book of Ruth this morning ends with Ruth’s famous refrain:
“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”
And may it be so.
May this love that does not let us go be; not only in Naomi’s life, but in all of yours as well.