Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Matthew 22:39
The Bible is a complicated book. It’s far from an easy book to read, and even harder to understand. This difficulty may explain why so many people pick up the Bible each year with sincere hearts to read and learn. After a few late-night attempts, it ends up decorating our nightstands or coffee tables. The truth is that more of us appeal to it than read it. And more of us invoke its authority than making sincere attempts at trying to understand it.
The Bible is full of stories, legends, and laws recorded over a thousand years. In fact, the term Bible comes from the Latin Biblia meaning books. So, the book that many of us think as a unified, coherent document is anything but a single book. We have sixty-six books — some as early as nine centuries before Christ with other epistles of the New Testament written as late as one hundred years after the birth of Jesus.
This protracted process explains why it’s virtually impossible to sit down and read the Bible like a straight-forward, linear narrative. Beginning with Adam and Eve, there are repetitious tales and contradictory claims. Oral stories take on new life with each generation. Different authors emphasize their own political and religious claims. And biblical writers took for granted cultural cues of the ancient world that are foreign to us today. There is a vast gulf between our world and the world of the Bible. I suspect these are the reasons why the late biblical studies professor Daryl D. Schmidt used to tell his entering students at Texas Christian University, “You can take the Bible literally, or you can take it seriously.”
Nevertheless, despite the difficulty of interpretation, there remain those who speak with dangerous certainty concerning the Bible. Whereas responsible interpretation demands the skill of a surgeon’s scalpel, many employ the Bible like a blunt butcher’s knife. Rather than heal, the Bible, then, bludgeons. Rather than aid and guide, it becomes a weapon to defeat and destroy.
That is what’s going on here in today’s gospel lesson. Religious leaders seem threatened by Jesus’s popularity. Judeans lived under Roman domination. Cultural insecurity caused religious elite to raise the bar of access to God’s kingdom. Many took out their frustrations with Rome on their people. Times of political vulnerability too often necessitate scapegoats. It is essential for us to remember, during times of social conflict, hatred can become quite acceptable, even though it masquerades as patriotism and piety. Thus, the poor, those suffering from chronic diseases, and the most vulnerable women became easy targets of scorn.
It was vulnerable people who Jesus cared about the most. These are the people who Jesus saw. Some would say that Jesus started a Jewish renewal movement. For Jesus identified a recurring theme throughout the Hebrew Bible. From the Pentateuch to the Prophets, Jesus identified with a God who sides with those on the underside of power. God looks for those who we overlook. God hears the cries of those we too often ignore. And God extends empathy to those we don’t even know exist. This ability to see is what leads Jesus to call out and heal a woman with an issue of blood. This ability to hear causes Jesus to stop and heed the cry of a blind beggar. And it’s Jesus’s capacity to empathize that leads people to seek him out as a unique and special teacher of God’s kingdom.
It’s this popularity born of Jesus’s compassion that ruffles the feathers of the religious elite. So, they attempt to trip him up. And, like many anti-intellectual religious ideologues, they use the Bible as their weapon. The Pharisees approach Jesus and ask him a disingenuous question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Of course, this is a trick question. There are over six hundred laws recorded in the tradition. Like a malevolent inquisitor, this question would undoubtedly provide the Pharisees with an opportunity to pounce.
Jesus, however, does not appeal to legalese. He appeals to compassion. Jesus brackets the religious argument to point to God’s call for warmth empathy. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commands hang all the law and the prophets.” Love. Compassion. Empathy.
Compassion, or what the Buddhists call "Metta," begins with our capacity to see. We cannot care about those who we fail even to recognize. Similar might be said of warmth and empathy. We can not identify with those who do not exist. So as long as you and I can live in a state of plausible denial concerning the pains, problems, perils, and perplexities of our world, we can opt for an existence of blissful ignorance. Our world becomes the world. Our cares become all that matter. Egoistic self-absorption and myopic solipsism render us sinfully short-sighted. Hence, we need God’s corrective lenses.
This sermon would be easy, however, if it were just about our apathy. It would be easy to stand before you and wave the finger of judgment. “You ought to show compassion. You’re too self-absorbed. Think about someone other than yourself.” But the truth is this: I’ve met few people in life that are genuinely cold-hearted. I’ve met few who opt for evil and prefer anger over empathy. This leads me to believe that there is something else going on with us. There is something else about the human condition that causes us to opt for apathy and indifference over kindness and compassion.
I think Jesus speaks to it when giving the second greatest command. He says “Love thy neighbor, as thyself.” How many of us hear the first part of the command, but miss the second clause, “as thyself.” How many of us spend time considering what this means? How many of us know what it means to love ourselves wholly and completely?
Let me be clear. I am not talking about being proud of ourselves. I am not talking about being impressed with our accomplishments. Nor am I talking about finding happiness in personal achievement. I am talking about the ability to love the person that you know the best — yourself. Nobody knows your flaws like you. Nobody knows your insecurities as you do. Few understand what drives you or keeps you up in the midnight hour counting the sheep of self-doubt.
Do you love that person? Not the one who gets made up each morning. Not the one who is covered in cologne. Nor the person who knows all the right filters on Instagram to conceal blemishes. That’s the person you present to the world. But rather do you love the person who may not always measure up? Do you love the person who has made some terrible choices that you’ve kept hidden from the world? Do you love the person who you know is not as cool and put together as everyone else may think?
Rather than love that person, many of us just deny and conceal that person from the world. The more we cover, the more we ultimately condemn. We are overly self-critical. We look at our reflection and say, “she’s too fat. She’s not smart enough. He’s too weak. He will never be as successful as all of his classmates. I cannot forgive myself for what I did. I take the blame for that tragedy because I got exactly what I deserved.” We fail to show ourselves compassion. We refuse to extend grace to ourselves.
Thus, sometimes I wonder if this is the root of the meanness of our world. Might it be that we are unable to love our neighbors because too many of us are unable to love ourselves? Could this be why we fail to show compassion and warmth to others? We are not compassionate toward that man or woman we see in the mirror.
One of my favorite movies is a hip-hop classic starring Tupac Shakur. A 1992 American crime film entitled “Juice.” Tupac plays a troubled teenager named Bishop. He gets pulled in a downward spiral of violence and despair. At one point Bishop says to his friend (in my G-rated remix), “I don’t give a care about you because I don’t give a care about myself. I ain’t nothing, ain’t ever gonna be nothing, and so it’s easy for me to do away with you!” Of course, Bishop dies by the end of the movie — a victim of his own life of violence. But his character had already commit soul suicide long before his physical death. Our lives end the moment we believe that we are not worthy of love.
Maybe this is why Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to first love the Lord our God with all of our heart. Based on the love and acceptance of God, we can begin to love ourselves. More importantly, we can start to see ourselves as God sees us. God doesn’t care about our fickle and fleeting social values. Nor does God care about grandiose claims to power. When God looks at us, God sees our fears and our flaws. God sees our imperfections and impairments. And it is in our most vulnerable state that God beckons us. For where we are weak, God is strong. Where we are incomplete, God’s love makes us whole. God wants us to see ourselves as our Creator sees us—through the Lenses of Love.
On this past Friday evening, I visited Y2Y, the Harvard student-run homeless shelter for youth. It is a fantastic operation organized in 2012 when students discovered that most runaway youth and homeless adolescents fear for their safety in adult shelters. Not to mention homeless teens and young adults have distinct needs. For instance, a disproportionate number identify as LGBTQ and have fled violent situations. Harvard student volunteers felt they could better address these needs in a designated space. This concern is how Y2Y or Youth-2-Youth was born.
I met a Harvard College Junior on Friday named Shankar. One of the first things I noticed about Shankar was his cool, retro, horn-rimmed glasses. Like Shankar, his glasses were both serious and fun, they were hip yet sober. I asked Shankar what’s been the most surprising thing he has learned or experienced at the shelter. His response captured the spirit of Jesus’s teaching. Shankar said, “I love to come in when I’m not working and just talk to the guests. What’s most surprising to me is how little separates me from many of them. We share a lot in common regarding our struggles as young people. Many of them just have to do it without a roof over their head or in a much more volatile home situation. Thus, I figure I can use my privilege at Harvard to help them in whatever way I can. Because that could’ve been me.” Compassion. Warmth. Empathy.
Immediately, when I looked at Shankar’s face, his horn-rimmed glasses took a different form. I saw them as God’s lenses of love. He didn’t see merely homeless victims in need of pity. Nor did he see troubled youth who’ve made poor decisions. Shankar saw children of God; children of God with the same hopes, dreams, fears, and uncertainties as himself. Thus, he can love and treat them as himself.
What would this world be like if you and I had enough love for ourselves that we might heed the words of Jesus? Love God. Love yourself. And then love somebody else. By doing so, we fulfill all of God’s commandments.