The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
E. Bevan Stanley
October 31, 2021
Proper 26, Year B
One of the scribes asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
The opening of the Gospel reading for today is confusing. “One of the scribes came near and heard the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well”, asked him a question. The Sadducees are arguing with each other, and Jesus is answering them well. That doesn’t make much sense. In any case, the one who is to ask Jesus the big question is described as a “scribe.” Some translators would call him a lawyer. He is not affiliated with the Sadducees, who are arguing with each other. In other passages the scribes seem to be allies of the Pharisees, but the Pharisees are not mentioned here. It would make sense that the scribes would have more in common with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were focused on the keeping the Law and were very interest in the sacred scriptures. Thus they w would need books and the scribes who copied the texts. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were focused on the Temple and the sacrificial cult of offering animals on the altar there. Since Jews who did not live in or near Jerusalem could not participate regularly in the Temple sacrifices, they practiced their faith in the local synagogues where the rabbis taught the scriptures. Jesus, coming from Galilee would be more at home with the spirituality that came from the study of scriptures than that attached to the Temple cult. Indeed, in the Gospel of John three significant Pharisees are allied with Jesus: Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Gamaliel. Jesus just got annoyed with the Pharisees when they got too nit-picky about the minutiae of the traditions associated with keeping the law.
Back to the reading. So we have the Sadducees arguing with each other and, it seems, with Jesus. The scribe is impressed with how Jesus is holding his own and asks his own question: “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus’ answer is often called the Summary of the Law. It may be read at the beginning of the Eucharist in Rite One. Jesus quotes two passages from the Torah. The first is the Shema which is so important that in the Hebrew text two letters are printed in large print to mark it is as special. This is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where this is done. It is called the Shema because Shema is the first word in Hebrew; it means “Hear” or “Hark” or “Listen.” It is the same as the first line of the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf: Wacht. Listen. “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.” This was the verse that was written on a piece of parchment or paper and worn on the forehead in a phylactery and put on the doorway of one’s house. The Shema is found in the book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, verses 4 and 5. The second quotation Jesus uses is found in Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Actually, it is imbedded in two verses which read, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
The scribe approves of Jesus response and says, ““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.
Throughout this discussion the Greek word being used for love is ἀγαπή (aga-pay). This is the kind of love with which God loves us. It is the unselfish, giving love that wills the highest good of the other and is willing to sacrifice one’s own comfort or even life for the good of the other. This is the core of Jesus’ message and of his understanding of the whole of Jewish Law. The Presiding Bishop of the entire Episcopal Church in the United States is fond of saying, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
Today’s reading from the short story about the Moabite women, Ruth, is an example of how this love can play out in a time of great despair. Naomi came with her husband to Moab as a refugee from a famine in Israel. She had two sons and then her husband died. She raised the two boys as a single mom. Her sons grew up and married. Then they died without issue. So now there are three women with no menfolk to protect or provide for them. In a patriarchal society, this would mean they are impoverished with no place to live and no means to make a living. Hearing that the famine was past back home in Israel, Naomi decides to return there and see if there any of her relatives who might be willing to take her in. She advises her daughters-in-law to do the same in Moab. Orpah does so, but Ruth refuses to be parted from Naomi. We can imagine a number of possible motivations, but the story as it is written shows only Ruth’s devotion and loyalty to Naomi. She is willing to leave everything, even her religion, to accompany Naomi. The younger woman has the strength to work for both of them. The older woman has family connections that can benefit both of them. Together they can survive and thrive. Next week we will hear the outcome of this decision. Until then we are moved by Ruth’s commitment to her mother-in-law and how the two women loved each other.
And what about us? Jesus tells us that we are to love God and our neighbor. Indeed, when we love our neighbor, we love God. And this is not a labor or a matter of obeying a harsh master. No, this is the path of joy. This life we live here on earth is a school of love. Every day, every experience we have is either a lesson about love or an opportunity to practice love. Regardless of how much progress we have made or not made, of how proficient in love we have become, when we die, we go on to graduate school in heaven and continue to learn more about love and to be able to love more and better until we become like God. And if there is someone we have difficulty getting along with or relating to, we pray for them. We try to be kind to them. We do what we can. They may never reciprocate. They may never be our friends. But we will be more joyful. We will be happier. We will be more free.
So, I end this sermon with the blessing that I have taken to using at the end of the liturgy. Life is short, and we have little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us: so be swift to love, make haste to be kind, and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you now and always.