In Jesus’ time, it was very common for people, especially rabbis, to get together to study and argue about the scriptures. What did this mean when it was written? How does it apply to the changing situation today? You are forbidden from working on the Sabbath, but what if someone desperately needs your help? What if they need your help but not desperately? What are the rules that determine if it is desperate or not? You can work if it’s to save a man’s life, but what if it isn’t to save their life, but to help when they’re sick? How sick is sick?
Jesus participated in these debates. It was near the end of his life, after he entered Jerusalem, and things were heating up. The Pharisees and Sadducees had tried to trick him into saying something blasphemous, but the scribe saw that he had answered everyone very well. The scribe seems very sincere. “So,’ he asked, “of all the 613 commandments, which are the most important?” It sounds as if the man really wanted to know.
“The first is hear, O Israel, the Lord is one; Love God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself.” We know this is the mother of all the commandments. The scribe knew it too, but for him, it was also shocking.
In ancient Israel, a scribe was a learned person, like a lawyer or judge. Some scribes copied the Torah, and they had to follow specific laws regarding how to write it, what to do if you made a mistake, and how to keep it holy. Scribes were a respected part of the religious establishment.
Sacrifice was an integral part of religion at that time. They believed sacrifice was necessary as a ‘sin offering’, as well as a way of expressing gratitude for a new child and dedication to God. The act of making a sacrifice was holy. The scribe was entrenched in this culture. He was surrounded by the faith, and it was also his livelihood. His status, and the status of his family depended upon it. It was in the air he breathed.
But after hearing Jesus describe which commandments were greater than the rest, he exclaimed, “You are right, Teacher! What you say is true! God is one, and beside him there is no other. To love God with all your heart, and with all your understanding, and with all your strength,’ and ‘to love your neighbor as yourself,’ is Much more important than all our burnt offerings and sacrifices!”
His love of God increased, his love of neighbor increased, and his love of religion, decreased. He saw what was important, and he saw what was not.
When I was an intern chaplain at Fairview Hospital, I was with seminarians from different denominations: Lutherans, Catholics, Episcopalian, Methodist, Evangelical, and me. One man showed up in a black shirt and clergy collar for the first few days. He thought it would be helpful for patients if he identified himself as a Christian chaplain. But the supervisor said, ‘No.” He might be proud of being a Christian leader, but we were here for everybody, regardless of their faith, or lack of faith. What he saw as pride in his identity, another person would see as a barrier. How comfortable would a Buddhist, or a Jew, or a young person who was gay or lesbian feel being vulnerable with a man in a clergy collar? We needed to make it clear that we were serving all people. The greatest commandment was important. Our need to be identified as Christian clergy was not important.
Our grandchildren were visiting yesterday. Maya, who is five wanted to hide a little ball, and have me find it. I sat in the living room, and closed my eyes, while she went to hide it. After a few minutes she came out, all excited, saying, “Ok, open your eyes! She led me to the pantry, saying, “Look over here, look over here!” I stood there, looking at all the cans of beans and soup and boxes of noodles and tea, and she jumped up and down saying, “Look down at the bottom, look at the bottom!” So, I stumbled to a sitting position on the floor with my knee replacement and went through every box of graham cracker and lightbulbs, and looked in the flour tin. Nothing. Then she happily clapped her hands, and yelled, “Now look somewhere else!”
Like the scribe, we can get wrapped up in the details and miss the point. Rick Wagner, our associate conference minister, talks about another minister he knows who carries around little laminated cards in his shirt pocket. When he’s at a committee meeting or anywhere else, and people get bogged down in discussions, he reaches in his pocket, and lays a card on the table that says, “This is not important to Jesus.” It’s a good reminder.
A week ago, we heard about the tragedy in Pittsburg, where a man ran into a synagogue yelling, “Kill all the Jews,” shot and killed 11 innocent worshipers, and wounded six more. People are justifiably horrified. It is horrible when anyone is killed just going about their business, but the horror of such an action is more obvious when it occurs in a place dedicated to holiness. When those hurt are in the middle of an act of worship, the contrast is more stark.
But in the midst of thousands of notes and flowers that people have sent, one group stands out. The Muslims. Within 24 hours of the killings, the Muslims had raised $75,000 for the Jewish Congregations. The other day, it was reported to be over $150,000.
The young man who presented it to the synagogue on behalf of the Muslim community said, “We wanted to do this for you, because the last thing you should have to worry about is money for funeral or medical expenses.” We are here for you. We Muslims are here for you. If you need us to stand outside your synagogue to protect you when you worship, you tell us. If you need us to go to the grocery store because you are afraid to go outside, you tell us.” Their LaunchGood website page, (the Muslim equivalent of Gofundme), states, “We wish to respond to evil with good, as our faith instructs us, and send a powerful message of compassion through action.”
Tarek El-Messidi is the man who started the fundraiser. He had experience with it, because two years ago, he had raised $136,000 to repair hundreds of Jewish headstones that had been defaced in St. Louis and Philadelphia. When he was interviewed, Mr. El-Messidi said.
“Putting our religious differences or even political differences aside, the core of all of us is that we have a shared humanity. We really wanted to reach out as human beings to help.” (New York Times)
They know what is important. This is the greatest commandment. Whether you wear a yarmulke, and prayer shawl when you pray, or a hijab, and robe is not important. Whether you worship in a synagogue or a mosque is not important. “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”