Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 31 • 1 Nov 2015

Ruth 1:1-18
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Rev. Chris Udy

Our readings for this week
couldn’t possibly have been more relevant.
Today we start reading Ruth,
and we remember
that the golden age of Israel began
with Ruth – a refugee woman from Moab
(we’d call her Palestinian) –
who refused to let her mother-in-law
take her perilous journey alone,
and by her determination and compassion
made a home for them both in Bethlehem.

On Tuesday Tony Abbott sparked
an international conversation
about loving your neighbour –
words from our Gospel reading -
arguing that this ‘imperative’, as he described it,
is leading Europe into ‘catastrophic error’.
He was immediately criticised
by a number of Christian leaders
and almost every columnist and commentator
from across the political spectrum
has weighed in this week for the fight.
But one of the most thoughtful contributions
was written for the ABC by Ben Myers,
one of our Uniting Church theologians.

Ben wrote about the work of Reinhold Niebuhr,
who had a significant influence
on U.S. foreign policy during and after WWII –
about the time the world –
led by Australians like Doc Evatt -
was working out how it might respond
to a refugee crisis in Europe much like it is today.

Niebuhr described two extremes of political thinking:
sentimental thinkers – usually Left- leaning,
and cynical thinkers – who tend to the Right.
Sentimentalists, according to Ben,
“assume that universal values of love and compassion
can be translated directly into political decisions.
Christ commands us to love our neighbour,
so our policies regarding borders
and the processing of asylum seekers
should directly reflect that love.
This approach is sentimental
because it fails to account
for the complex interaction of interests and trade-offs
in every policy decision.”

Cynics, on the other hand,
“recognise the tragic limitations of political decisions,
and conclude that the ideal of love is impossible.
Questions of love and compassion are set aside,
and politics is reduced to amoral calculations
of rival interests and agendas.
[But] To discuss the problem of refugees
purely in terms of economic advantages
and national self-interest,
without any consideration of moral responsibility,
is to debase our own national identity.”

Ben concludes his article with these words:
“Christ's commandment to love
is not only a guide to practical action.
It is also a call to repentance.
The call to "love your neighbour as yourself"
might challenge one country, like Australia,
to do much more for the plight of refugees,
while challenging another country
to do more to secure its borders
and preserve its national identity.
Depending on the situation,
each of these paths might be a path of love
that seeks the flourishing of human communities.
Each involves deliberations
over competing goods and limited resources.
Each comes at a cost.

Whether by temperament we lean to the Right or the Left,
to cynicism or sentimentality,
our political life will be wiser
to the extent that we remain willing
to hear the call to love
and to renew our efforts,
always trying to find out
what love requires in each new situation,
knowing that the kingdom of God has not yet come
and that the work of love is always still ahead of us.”

Choices – whether they’re political or personal –
are never straightforward.
We’re rarely asked to make decisions
between something good and something bad;
most of the time the good comes at a cost,
and bad things come with a payoff.
Most of the time we’re weighing options,
trying to find which obligation or responsibility
needs to be given higher priority than another.

And that’s what lay behind
the question Jesus was asked
in the reading we heard from Mark’s Gospel.

Jesus had been arguing
with some business leaders - Sadducees -
who were keen to rubbish the idea
that there was more to life
than possessions and profits –
so they were probably cynics.
They picked their political fight with Jesus
over a theological issue:
whether there was any hope of resurrection,
and they argued that it didn’t fit with the law of Moses.

They asked about a woman
who was forced to marry 7 brothers,
one after another as each one died,
in an attempt to provide her dead husbands
with successors and inheritors.
In their scenario
both wife and children were seen
as nothing more than possessions for the men,
and the smart question the Sadducees asked
showed no awareness or understanding
of what the woman might feel or think
about such grief in her life
or the shame a Hebrew woman would feel
about not being able to bear children.
The Sadducees just wanted to ridicule
the idea of resurrection,
so their question, after telling this tragic story, was
“In the resurrection,
who would the woman belong to -
whose wife would she be?”
The Sadducees couldn’t imagine a woman
not belonging to a man.
They thought their clever argument
proved the impossibility of resurrection
and ensured their safety from judgement
for the way they used their wealth and power in life -
but Jesus demolished their smugness
by saying that in God’s perfection
men don’t own women or children,
and that there’s no need for a marriage contract
to protect property rights in heaven.
Then he said that if the Sadducees
had read their Bibles properly
they’d realise that, in God,
all those the Sadducees looked to
for security, authority and guidance:
Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses
are not dead, but alive.

The Sadducees were silenced at that,
but one of the scribes - an expert in the law -
was listening the argument and liked what he heard.
So the scribe asked Jesus a genuine question -
perhaps the only genuine, non-hostile question
ever put to Jesus by one of those in power.
“Which of the commandments is first of all?” he asks,
and Jesus responds as openly as he’s asked.

Hebrew Law had identified 613 commandments,
and they covered almost every act and aspect of life.
At every moment in every day
a righteous man or woman was under obligation
to do something required by the law
and to refrain from doing something
prohibited by the law.
The problem was - and is -
that the commandments aren’t consistent.
One of the ten commandments
says “You will not kill” -
but the Scribes had also taught that other commandments
required the genocide of whole tribes of people.
Another of Moses’ commandments
says to not to work, but to rest on the Sabbath -
but books of interpretation had been written
to catalogue the things
that certainly looked like work,
but could safely be indulged in on the Sabbath
by those in the know.
Scribes and rabbis were constantly asked
which of any two commandments was greater -
which was the higher obligation,
the more pressing responsibility -
and rabbis and scribes held constant debates
about the relative importance
of one commandment or another.
So the question the scribe asked Jesus was normal -
but the answer Jesus gave was not.

He began his answer by quoting the words
every Jewish man said every morning
when he began his prayers:
“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.”
Scribes and other Rabbis would have stopped there,
but Jesus kept on going:
“And the second is this,
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Ahead of all the other commandments
about worship and Sabbath and dress and diet,
above all the obligations
to temple and nation and even family,
Jesus tied together
the love of God, and the love of neighbour.
These were the first and greatest commandments,
and all the others come after these, he said.
So if there’s to be a conflict,
if keeping one commandment means breaking another,
then these are the two to keep;
they take priority over all the rest.
Amazingly, the scribe responded
“You are right, Teacher,
you have truly said that ‘God is one,
and besides God there is no other';
and ‘to love God with all the heart,
and with all the understanding,
and with all the strength,'
and ‘to love one's neighbour as oneself,'
this is much more important
than burnt offerings and sacrifices."

Mark then writes:
“When Jesus saw that the Scribe had answered wisely,
he said to him,
"You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

It’s pretty easy - and not very helpful -
to use Bible passages like this
to push a political argument or position.
That’s what the Sadducees were trying to do,
and Jesus undermined them.
For the people listening to Jesus
the law had become all-consuming.
It had oozed into every available space
and infiltrated relationships
and those who should have been protected by the law -
those the law was made for -
women, children, old folk, sick folk,
refugees and paupers -
those whom God always has most in mind
because they are most in need -
were being ignored and crushed and left behind
in the pressure to succeed and achieve.
For those in power in Jesus’ day
that pressure to succeed was religious and political -
for us the pressure might be economic and social,
but the casualties are the same -
and what Jesus was suggesting
wasn’t a political or economic opinion.
He cut through the 613 commandments of the Law
to tie together the two
that put all the rest in perspective:
“love God and love your neighbour” he said,
the two belong together -
you can’t love God without loving all God’s children,
and you can’t love human beings
without loving the source and meaning and hope
that gives them life.
Love God and love your neighbour - he said -
and all the other details and commandments
about religion and politics
and business and work and family
fall into their place.

No-one can really tell us
what loving God and loving our neighbour means.
It certainly starts with family - our nearest neighbours,
and then we have to work out the detail for ourselves.
And where, for most of us,
the pressures and tensions of life
come from trying to hold everything together,
juggling many demands and expectations
in constant fear of failure and disappointment,
Jesus says that’s not the way of the kingdom.
For Jesus, the list of things we have to do
collapses into two, and those two are really one:
God is in your neighbour,
and your neighbour is in God,
and everything is held together in love.
So it’s love that wakes us up
to see God in those who live with and around us,
it’s love that helps us listen with respect,
and respond with compassion;
it’s love that lets us ask forgiveness
when we make mistakes,
and offer grace when we’ve been wronged;
it’s love that builds trusting faith in God
and its love that leads us to the kingdom
Jesus said is coming and is already very near.