There are two ways to read a mystery novel. You can start on page one and read from start to finish. The reader who reads this way allows the story to unfold in its own time. Some would say in the way the author intended.
Another way to read a mystery novel is to skip to the last page first to find out whodunit before returning to the beginning. This reader — knowing the ending — watches the story unfold but enjoys spotting the literary clues the author has left.
Christians start reading the Bible with Jesus. We read Genesis through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the prophets through his life, death, and resurrection. We read the Psalms ever mindful of Jesus. Even Christians who read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation already know what happens to Jesus. Since we know what happens, we understand the rest of the Bible in a particular way.
Our elder testament — the Old Testament — accounts for approximately 75% of our sacred text. Yet, we spend most of our time reading and preaching the younger testament.
This is a mistake. To understand Jesus and his teachings, we must understand his faith. To understand his faith, we must read and study his Bible.
In our scripture reading from Mark’s gospel (Mark 12:28-31), several Jews, of whom Jesus is one, are discussing the Torah. (The Torah is the first five books of our Bible.)
Like UCCers, many Jews of Jesus’ time did not read the text in a rigid way. They believed, like we do, that the Bible is a living document through which God still speaks. Like us, they believed that the Bible is best understood within community. No one of us has the answer. It is in community that varied perspectives and voices are part of the conversation and more fully enable us to discern God’s will.
And, so, overhearing the discussion a legal expert asks Jesus,
“Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Jesus responds by quoting from Torah. He paraphrases Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5,
Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord! Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.(Deuteronomy 6:4-5 CEB)
Jesus doesn’t stop with one commandment, however. He tells the legal expert that there are two commandments that serve as the foundation of our faith. And, so, he paraphrases from Leviticus 19 as well,
You must not take revenge nor hold a grudge against any of your people; instead, you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:18 CEB)
Jesus tells the legal expert, “No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:31 CEB)
If the teachings of Jesus are foundational for Christians, as we claim, I argue that when he tells us what the Greatest Commandment is, we should try to follow it. Says Jesus,
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” 12:30-31a CEB
This. These words of Jesus quoting Torah can serve as the yardstick by which we measure our actions and relationships in the world.
These words are the sunglasses through which, as followers of Jesus, we view a brighter, a more hopeful possibility for the world. They allow us to see the world in a different way and determine the actions we will take in our personal lives and in our advocacy for others.
Many of you have been rightfully upset by the unaccompanied children who have been entering our country at the southernmost border. I’ve had multiple conversations about “What can we do?”
Here is a short video shared by Kate Epperly that I think frames the issue well. Kate is our UCC Minister on the Disciples/UCC Family & Children’s Ministry Team.
So, what do we do? What would Jesus do when faced with a complex political and ethical issue? He might pray; he might look at scripture. I suspect that he’d do both as he considered his actions.
When he looked at scripture, he’d probably find any number of passages about God’s expectations regarding our response to this Hebrew word variously translated into English as alien, as immigrant, as sojourner, or sometimes traveler.
Contextually in the seventh or eighth century before Christ, when Deuteronomy was written, there are no Hiltons or Motel 6s. There were no McDonald’s or Denny’s. If you were traveling, you depended upon the hospitality of strangers. This serves a dual purpose. For the traveler, it meant a place to stay and food to eat. For the host it was a way to honor God.
To breech this obligation to care for others was to breech your very obligation to God. Writes UCC scholar Walter Brueggemann,
Deuteronomy has in purview a profoundly neighborly ethic that understands the formation and maintenance of a communal infrastructure as a primal mode of obedience to the God of covenant. (Abingdon OT Commentaries: Deuteronomy, loc. 122)
And, so, when Jesus looked at his scripture, he might’ve looked at Deuteronomy 10 in which the writer, speaking as if Moses, says,
Stop being so stubborn, 17 because the Lord your God is the God of all gods and Lord of all lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who doesn’t play favorites and doesn’t take bribes. He enacts justice for orphans and widows, and he loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing. 19 That means you must also love immigrants because you were immigrants in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:16b-19 CEB)
Jesus’ Bible and our Bible is chockfull of widening the circle of love. Jesus himself widens the circle to include not only the Jewish people but Gentiles as well. Jesus himself spends much of his ministry at the margins of society, among those who are not fully included in society.
We are called to include all peoples within God’s circle because our God is an “awesome God who doesn’t play favorites! (Deut. 10: 18 CEB)
And, so, as followers of Jesus I ask you now, what does God ask of us?
When we view this crisis through the lens of the Greatest Commandment, what position do we take? How do we manifest loving God with all our heart, all our being, all our mind, and all our strength? How do we love our neighbor as ourselves?
What actions do we individually and collectively take? What would Jesus encourage us to say and do? How will we respond to the aliens among us?
Following this short sermon, preached at the Condon United Church of Christ on July 20, 2014, the congregation had a lengthy discussion regarding ways to respond to the current crisis of unaccompanied children at the United States’ southern border.