Our first reading today is sort of the anthem text for the study we’re doing for Lent. That is the book Reckless Love by Tom Berlin. The reading comes from Luke 10:25-29.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Our next readings are from Matthew chapter 23, where Jesus rails against his foes in the religious establishment. First verse 13, then verses 23 to 24.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.”
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”
This week’s chapter in Tom Berlin’s book is titled “Value the vulnerable.”
I find that notion especially relevant in these perilous times of a raging pandemic, when those people in our society who are always the most vulnerable are now critically vulnerable, and yet some politicians appear eager to write them off as expendable, so we can “get back to business” as quickly as possible.
Who is my neighbor whom I have to love? That’s the question the lawyer asks Jesus in the story from Luke. Jesus responds by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. There are many possible takeaways from that story. Surely one of them is that your neighbor is anyone you encounter who is in need.
Tom Berlin notes that one of the easiest ways to make this commandment manageable is to identify large groups of people to whom it does not apply.
The fewer people we have to love, the easier it is to do. The lawyer is hoping that Jesus will post some limits here. Perhaps he’ll say, “No, you don’t have to love those people; you only have to love these.”
And of course those people will be the ones you most want to hate and exclude, and these are the ones you most admire and want to include.
Jesus could have made it a lot easier if he’d given us some clever rules for how to work this out: who we could hate without feeling guilty, who we could refuse to associate with because they’re the wrong kind of people, and so on.
I once knew a guy who thought he had pretty much everything figured out, especially spiritual things. He was always saying, “Judge a person by the company he keeps.”
There are a lot of problems with that statement, among them that by this criterion, Jesus was a dismal failure. Jesus kept bad company. He associated with the down and out, the poor and those without hope, sinners and reprobates. He valued the most vulnerable people around him, if only because practically no one else did.
W.C. Fields was a great comedian from the early days of radio and film. He was known for hard drinking and riotous living. One day one of his friends found him studying a Bible. “What in the world are you doing?” the friend asked. Fields said: “Looking for loopholes, looking for loopholes.”
Of all the texts in the Bible that we’d like to avoid, this love commandment from Jesus is the one we’re most afraid of. When it comes to loving people we’d rather not even think about, we’re all looking for loopholes.
Really, Jesus? You expect me to love them? You gotta be kidding!
Jesus blasted the religious leaders of his day. Rather than inviting people to love God, they drove people away. They acted like gatekeepers locking people out rather than door openers inviting people in. Maybe even worse, having kept others out of God’s kingdom, they never went in themselves.
Blind guides! They followed the tiniest rules, Jesus said. They even offered God a tenth portion of the mint and other spices they grew in their home gardens. But they ignored what Jesus called “the weightier matters of the law.” These matters are justice, and mercy, and faith.
These are matters of the heart. These are matters of loving others as God wants us to love them. It’s so much easier to do the flashy stuff that shows everyone how religious we are.
The scribes and Pharisees may have been “religious,” but they were not loving. And the full testimony of Jesus and the prophets before him is that God cares not one bit for your religious piety if your actions are not motivated by love and expressed by active love to others.
If religion is only a matter of looking holy on Sunday mornings, it’s not worth squat. If religion is not something you live out every day of your life, it’s worthless. In Philippians 3:8, the Apostle Paul describes such religion as “trash.” At least, that’s how the word is often translated. In the original Greek, the word he uses is much more colorful and coarse.
Think for a moment of who might be the most vulnerable today, when a deadly virus is sweeping the planet.
- People who are older and have existing health conditions are most vulnerable to getting the disease.
- People who were barely hanging on before this crisis and now don’t know where their next meal will come from.
- People who have lost income or their jobs because so many businesses are shutting down.
- Health care workers who are working, literally on the front lines, to save those who are infected and to keep others from becoming infected.
- Those “essential employees” who are working longer hours with fewer and fewer workers beside them to keep certain operations running.
- The clerks in your local grocery who are nearly exhausted after working so many days overtime to keep the shelves stocked with food and other supplies – yes, including toilet paper, if folks would stop hoarding it.
Pray for these vulnerable people. We need them, and they need our support.
There are those, of course, who are looking for loopholes.
There are those non-essential businesses that refuse to close because they think they’re somehow exempt from the rules that govern everyone else. There are those churches who think they are so holy that germs won’t get to them.
There are those politicians, such as that clown in Florida, who think we should ignore health experts and return to business as usual – and, hey, if we lose a few hundred thousand old folks along the way, somebody has to make sacrifices, right? Somebody – as long as it’s not me.
What’s the right thing to do to love those who are most vulnerable? Is it to lift restrictions and let people interact freely, and hope the virus will just go away? Or is it to continue to follow the guidelines of health professionals and stay away from each other for awhile longer? What is the just and merciful and faithful response here?
Friends, I am not going to risk your lives by parading my piety and pretending to be faithful while I am not doing the right thing.
Next Sunday is Palm & Passion Sunday, the doorway to Holy Week. The doors of our church building will remain closed. We’ll again worship online. Sometime during Holy Week, probably on Good Friday, we’ll offer a special time of worship, perhaps in a way that is more interactive than simply you listening to me talk.
On Easter Sunday, we’ll offer a unique worship experience, but it also will be online. We’ll celebrate together soon – not soon enough, but only when the time is right for us to gather safely.
Pray that the time will be right soon. Pray that God protects the most vulnerable among us – and give us the strength to do the same. Continue to love one another by keeping a certain physical distance – not a social distance, but a physical distance. It’s the best we can do in this dangerous time.
This message was delivered March 29, 2020, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, via FaceBook Live.