Rev. Teri Peterson
Actions Speak Louder
6 March 2016, Lent 4, NL2-26
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “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.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘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.
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”
David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’
I’m sure most of us know that due to a combination of factors, thousands of people in Flint, Michigan have been drinking water contaminated with high levels of lead, and there appears to be no timeline for when the water can be made safe again. In the meantime, churches and schools and clubs and individuals across the state and the country have been donating bottled water and filters, trying to help, because many of the residents of Flint have no extra money to spend on those things.
About an hour and a half west of Flint is a prison. And last month, during a class at that prison, a man stood up in front of 250 of his fellow prisoners and gave an impassioned plea: would they give some money to help the people in Flint? Some of them come from that city, or from cities like it. Some have family and friends there, or can imagine something similar happening to their families. Would they help?
Most of the inmates earn about $10 a month at their prison jobs, which they use to buy toiletries, phone cards, and supplies at the prison commissary. Every single one of the 250 men at that meeting pledged to give at least $3/month—30% of their income—to send water and filters to the people affected by this crisis.
At a prison in Indiana, the men asked the chaplain if they could designate a Sunday offering for the people of Flint, and at that service these people who earn $1.25 per day doing laundry, working in the cafeteria, and producing materials for the state, gave $2,000. Previously, they have given that amount also to dig a well in Mozambique, and to help people in Haiti.
I couldn’t help but think of today’s scripture reading, which takes place on the Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus’ last day out teaching in public in the city. Not only because of the striking parallels with the ways we usually understand the story of the widow who makes her tiny yet enormous offering, but also because these stories feel like a picture of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself, from an unlikely—we might say upside down—perspective.
When the scribe asks Jesus his question, it seems sincere. There’s no hint here of a trick question or an attempt to trap Jesus—there’s a man genuinely interested in the answer. Which commandment, of the 613 in the Torah, is most important? And Jesus answers without missing a beat, quoting Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19 together, and telling us that these two commands, to love God and love our neighbor, are the lens through which we should interpret all the other commandments and stories. If we are reading scripture or our traditions in a way that do not lead us to increased love of God and love of our neighbor, then we are not reading correctly—because it is on these two commandments that all the others depend. Therefore it is not optional for us to practice loving God and loving our neighbors—or even loving God by loving our neighbors.
As if to illustrate his point, a widow enters the Temple courts. Widows were among the most vulnerable people in the society—in a time when women had no legal standing, a woman with no husband to take care of her, protect her, or look out for her interests was dependent on the kindness and care of others. Scripture is bursting with commandments, exhortation, and admonishments to take care of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. The three are almost always grouped together as a kind of shorthand for “those on the margins, those easily taken advantage of, those in need.”
And into the Temple courts comes a widow who has only 2 small coins. Those two coins were worth about a sixtieth of a laborer’s daily wage, and they are all she has.
How does this happen?
In a society where caring for widows is a crucial part of the religious and cultural fabric, how does the widow become so impoverished?
The scribes, the legal experts, who could read and write, were charged with handling contracts and financial matters. They may have been dishonest in their dealings, especially with those who wouldn’t have anyone else to advocate for them. Jesus accuses them of devouring widows houses…perhaps they used their position to line their own pockets and improve their own position at the expense of others.
But there’s a lot of money going into that treasury. People put in large sums, and still had plenty left. Where was that money going? It certainly wasn’t going to support the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. In fact, the one who should be cared for by this system still had to give to it, even though it was apparently unjust.
We usually think of the widow as a model for generosity—though it is the kind of generosity we rarely aspire to, since most of us have no plans to give everything we have. But what if instead the widow is an indictment of the whole social, cultural, and religious system? The scribe asked an earnest question and received an honest answer. The exchange between Jesus and the scribe is theological education at its best.
But if our theology ends when the question is answered, we have a serious problem.
Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength—with every fiber of your being, with everything you are and everything you have and everything you know. Not just feel love, but love, the verb, the action.
We know that we love because God first loved us—breathing us into being, holding us in the palm of God’s hand, knitting us together and calling us into community, healing us and sustaining us. We have experienced God’s love, so we can love God.
The neighbor is trickier. Our neighbor may not love us first, or in return, or ever. Our neighbor may be difficult, or annoying, or dangerous, or different. And yet—because God loved us first, we love our neighbor as we do ourselves. We don’t have to feel love for them, but we do have to love them—to act in loving ways towards others, to desire the best for them, to work together for their good as much as for our own.
Notice Jesus didn’t put any qualifiers on neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself, period. Not “love your neighbor unless they’re muslim, or gay, or black, or poor, or a prisoner.” Just love your neighbor as yourself. And not “love your neighbor in your heart but feel free to mock them, call them names, push them around, use derogatory language about them, and hurt them with your words and your actions.” Love your neighbor as yourself. If the way we are treating people in our world right now is a reflection of how we love ourselves, we have a big problem. If it isn’t, but we still do it to others, we have a bigger problem.
Our theology is no good if it ends with the words. Love is more than that. All the “I love yous” in the world are meaningless if our actions say something else. All our long prayers praising God go unheard as long as the poor widow is in our midst putting in all she has while we look on in admiration but with no intention of alleviating her poverty. All the best seats in the house will show us nothing if our love stays locked away in our feelings and never makes an appearance in our public discourse, our relationships, our spending habits, our giving, our approach to solving problems. Actions speak louder.
I certainly hope God’s love goes beyond warm fuzzy feelings and pretty words—which means that if we are to love as we have been loved, ours must go beyond as well, until we see the poor widow as our neighbor, the people of Flint as our neighbors, the prisoners as our neighbors, the people on the other side of the partisan spectrum as our neighbors…and then we act like it. When we start treating each other with love, we will turn the world upside down.
May it be so.