Amy-Jill Levine on “the Jewish Jesus”


Elizabeth Palmer interviews Amy-Jill Levine March 13, 2019

Amy-Jill Levine. Photo © Daniel DuBois / Vanderbilt University.

Amy-Jill Levine, who teaches New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt, is the author of The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and coeditor of The Jewish Annotated New Testament. She has also written (with Sandy Eisenberg Sasso) several children’s books, including Who Counts? 100 Sheep, 10 Coins, and 2 Sons.

Dr. Levine is a member of an Orthodox synagogue and speaks frequently in Christian congregations. Her most recent book is Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week, designed for use in group discussions.

How did you as a Jewish scholar come to focus on the New Testament? What is it about Jesus that drew you in?

I think Jesus is fascinating. Plus he’s Jewish, so he’s one of ours. The more I read not only the words attributed to him but also the stories told about him, the more intriguing I find the material.

I also have very much worried about the anti-Jewish views that frequently surface in studies about Jesus. A number of Christian commentators feel the need to make Judaism look bad in order to make Jesus look good. Instead of portraying Jesus as a Jew talking to other Jews, he becomes in their views the first Christian, the one who invented divine grace, mercy, and love, and all that other good stuff. Such views neglect the presence of these same virtues within Jesus’ own Jewish context…

Continue Reading Knowing and preaching the Jewish Jesushere at Christian Century

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on the Creation Stories

Few texts have had a deeper influence on Western civilisation than the first chapter of Genesis, with its momentous vision of the universe coming into being as the work of God. Set against the grandeur of the narrative, what stands out is the smallness yet uniqueness of humans, vulnerable but also undeniably set apart from all other beings.

The words of the Psalmist echo the wonder and humility that the primordial couple must have felt as they beheld the splendour of creation:

“When I consider your heavens,

The work of your fingers,

The moon and the stars,

Which you have set in place.

What is humanity that you are mindful of it,

The children of mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them little lower than the angels

And crowned them with glory and honour.”

(Psalm 8:3-5)

The honour and glory that crowns the human race is possession of the earth, which is granted as the culmination of God’s creative work: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” This notion is fortified in Psalm 115: “The heavens are the Lord’s heavens, but the earth God has given to humanity.” While the creation narrative clearly establishes God as Master of the Universe, it is the human being who is appointed master of the earth.

Grappling with the challenging notion of humans as divinely-ordained owners and subduers of the earth, we come face to face with the fundamental questions of our place in the universe and our responsibility for it. A literal interpretation suggests a world in which people cut down forests, slaughter animals, and dump waste into the seas at their leisure, much like we see in our world today.

On the other hand, as Rav Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Israel, writes, any intelligent person should know that Genesis 1:28, “does not mean the domination of a harsh ruler, who afflicts his people and servants merely to fulfil his personal whim and desire, according to the crookedness of his heart.” Could God have really created such a complex and magnificent world solely for the caprice of humans?

Genesis chapter 1 is only one side of the complex biblical equation. It is balanced by the narrative of Genesis chapter 2, which features a second Creation narrative that focuses on humans and their place in the Garden of Eden. The first person is set in the Garden “to work it and take care of it.”

The two Hebrew verbs used here are significant. The first – le’ovdah – literally means “to serve it.” The human being is thus both master and servant of nature. The second – leshomrah – means “to guard it.” This is the verb used in later biblical legislation to describe the responsibilities of a guardian of property that belongs to someone else. This guardian must exercise vigilance while protecting, and is personally liable for losses that occur through negligence. This is perhaps the best short definition of humanity’s responsibility for nature as the Bible conceives it.

We do not own nature – “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1) We are its stewards on behalf of God, who created and owns everything. As guardians of the earth, we are duty-bound to respect its integrity….

Finish reading Rabbi Sacks’ essay here at his website …

An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.

Charlotte and Janie talk about Sin

Janie and Charlotte grew up in the same Southern Fundamentalist denomination and were best friends in college. Now – after years of growing in some different directions – they are back in touch sharing blogs about how they see faith, politics and culture. Here are some brief interchanges as they engage Charlotte’s Living in The Story project.

Janie’s response to Charlotte’s blog on sin:

So much of what you say here rings true, Charlotte.  I totally agree that sin causes all kinds of natural consequences and we have only ourselves to blame for it.

Still . . .

It seems to me that what you’re describing here–broken relationships, separation from God and each other, self-bending–are symptoms, not causes. The original sin was not choosing to break the relationship, but choosing to exalt ourselves over God by the simple act of not believing him.

Where does temptation fit in all this? (You may have discussed the temptation aspect elsewhere.) We don’t have to agree on whether Adam and Eve were historical characters to understand the meaning of the serpent’s snare: “Did God really say that? Are you sure he has your best interest at heart? Don’t you understand that his real intention is to keep you dependent and inferior?”

The heart of sin is rebellion against God’s righteous authority–not acknowledging him as God, as Paul says in Romans 1. In the divine scheme of things, that’s not just tragic choice (though it is that too, of course)–it’s a crime. All sin is in some form rebellion against God, as David admitted in Psalm 51: “Against you, and you only, have I sinned.”

As you said, there are all kinds of natural consequences, but judgment is not one of them. The consequence of sin is not just a question of what we do, but of Who he is. “God as Judge sees and names what is real” (quoting Charlotte). That’s what God as Prophet does. God as Judge names the crime and pronounces a penalty–that’s what a judge does. Otherwise the word means nothing. The import of the flood story (which, again, we don’t have to accept as literally true in order to assess its meaning) is not only that God has a right to judge, but that he is right to judge.

We humans do bear responsibility for this: by deciding to reject him as Lord, we made him our Judge. To be true to his own righteousness, he has to judge, and someone has to pay. That’s where blood atonement comes in; otherwise it makes no sense at all.

Charlotte’s response back to Janie:

We don’t really disagree, Janie. Or at least not very deeply, I think.

“The original sin was not choosing to break the relationship, but choosing to exalt ourselves over God by the simple act of not believing him…” (Charlotte quoting Janie). I would say the Bible calls this idolatry, listed at the top of the Top Ten List of the 10 Commandments. I still think Augustine’s definition fits here as description, not just consequence. “incurvatus in se” – the self curved in upon itself. (Do you remember C.S. Lewis used the concept of “bentness” in his Perelandra series?)

No, I don’t talk much about temptation here. Happy to do that with you though.

Yes, Scripture speaks of sin as “crime.” That is one way to think about it. Barbara Brown Taylor also points out the biblical understanding of sin as “sickness.” Depending on which one we humans emphasize determines our understanding of appropriate “treatment.” Sin as crime demands judgment/penalty/punishment. Sin as sickness needs diagnosis/compassion/healing. Both are valid metaphors and both are present in Scripture. (I think you would really enjoy Brown’s book.)

I think we differ slightly in our understanding of God as Judge. I would say, within the created world the Just God has put into motion natural consequences for our sin that is indeed a kind of judgment. I would say it is God’s judgment that comes to us in the consequences. The brokenness, the bentness, the curving away from God, the rebellion, the self-centeredness all produce results in our lives (and in the lives of others) that have the power to challenge and entice us back to proper alignment. I still call that process the judgment and justice of God. That does not negate a belief in judgment as an external indictment by the Divine Judge. I just don’t see that operating in our world as it currently functions. Who knows what The End will look like? I leave that in God’s hands.

“To be true to his own righteousness, he has to judge, and someone has to pay. That’s where blood atonement comes in; otherwise it makes no sense at all.” (Janie’s words) This is important. The way you speak of atonement is ONE way of understanding what happened/happens through the cross. I refer you to Father Richard Rohr’s brief reflection on blood atonement. This could spark more interesting conversation.

At-One-Ment
https://cac.org/at-one-ment-not-atonement-2018-01-21/

Thanks for this. I always enjoy these talks of ours. Love…

 

See their first conversation on the Nature of Scripture here.

See Janie Cheaney’s Bible Challenge project here.

See more of their conversations here at Charlotte’s Intersections: Faith Culture Politics website.

Charlotte and Janie talk about the Nature of Scripture

Janie and Charlotte grew up in the same Southern Fundamentalist denomination and were best friends in college. Now – after years of growing in some different directions – they are back in touch sharing blogs about how they see faith, politics and culture. Here are some brief interchanges as they engage Charlotte’s Living in The Story project.

Janie responds to Charlotte’s blog:

I understand what you’re saying here, Charlotte (at least, I’m pretty sure!). Sounds like a Barthian approach (Karl Barth), and there’s much to be said for it. Certainly we apprehend scripture subjectively, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no objective meaning.

I recall someone telling me that the Bible is not propositional, but personal. In a way that’s true. But what do we do with the many, many propositional statements (the Ten Commandments, for example)?

Here’s how I might amend that idea: the Bible IS personal, and in its pages a very definite Person emerges: God himself. He is the main character in his story, and in his gracious condescension he invites us to take part in it. We encounter him subjectively, but as we grapple with the word he shapes us through it, conforming us to the image of Christ.

I agree with much of what you say here, and you say it beautifully, but I would disagree on points that turn out not to be minor. How do we “know” that the words in Deuteronomy were not spoken by Moses? How can determine that the letters to Timothy were “probably” not written by Paul? (A fragment of the gospel of Mark recently discovered has been dated all the way back to the first century.) It seems to me that those are assumptions that look for evidence, and tend to undermine the traditional understanding of “authority.”

Maybe we can talk about this sometime . . .

Charlotte responds:

Thank you for reading and for commenting, Janie. I love our conversations and am a smaller person since I dropped the ball earlier on keeping them going. Yes, let’s begin again talking about things that matter.

Biblical authority is indeed one of those things that matter deeply. You know I have made a journey that has changed my own understanding of what authority looks like. The Bible continues to be authoritative to me and within my circle of progressive Christians, but the “how” is different from what it was when I was a fundamentalist Christian. You and I could have much to talk about within this conversation. Let’s find a way to do that.

In the meantime, here is a quote from William Willimon and his wonderful book: Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry (2002)

We call the Bible “inspired” because the Bible keeps reaching out to us, keeps striking us with it’s strange truth, keeps truthfully depicting God…We trust the Bible because on enough Sundays we discover that God’s Word has the power to produce the readers that it requires.

In the reading of Scripture, the Creator is at work, something is made out of nothing, the church takes form around the words of the Word. (page 128)

Janie comes back:

Beautiful quote from Willimon, and I’m up for that discussion if we can find a suitable format. Here’s a proposal: Several years ago I co-wrote a series of Bible studies on the scope of scripture–the redemption story taken as a whole, with pivotal characters and overarching themes. The rationale, which you may identify with, is here: http://www.janiebcheaney.com/?p=946.

If I read your weekly posts, would you read mine? They’re very different in focus; mine are more educational and yours are meditative. As you’ll notice I don’t get into textual concerns like the two creation accounts (and I acknowledge there are two but it doesn’t bother me much). I’m focusing on the events and what they might mean to God and what they mean for us.

A couple months of reading each other’s–perhaps without responding–might give us a better platform to address each other.

Charlotte’s response:

Good idea! You’re on! I downloaded the first few lessons and I’m saving them in a file. I’ll respond to your blogs soon. I think it’s wonderful that we both came up with something similar, motivated out of similar concerns and interests!

 

See Janie Cheaney’s Bible Challenge project here.

See more of their conversations here at Charlotte’s Intersections: Faith Culture Politics website.

Week 48: November 26 – December 2

In 48 weeks, you have read through the entire Bible and now this is our final week of reading.

We’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly – the story of us humans throughout history. We’ve seen the amazing grace of the Author of The Story – an overarching narrative of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness for all generations. We’ve seen how our own stories in 2017 are folded into The Grand Story of the One who is The Beginning and The End, the Alpha and Omega.

Thank you for joining me on this journey as we have considered together the mysteries of Scripture. Take a break. Breathe in the beauty of Advent. And then consider beginning Living in The Story again in January. Every time we read, we discover something new. The mystery, beauty and truth are unsearchable.

Habakkuk

Zephaniah

Haggai

Zechariah

Malachi

Psalms 22

Psalms 102

Mark 15-16

Ephesians

Helpful information for Week 48: The Prophets

The Historical Settings of the Prophets of Israel

Living in The Story final blog.

The Word of the Lord; Thanks be to God

The Historical Settings of the Prophets of Israel

Years listed are B.C. Dates are approximate; scholars best guess
Information summarized from The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII

805Assyria defeats Damascus opening the way for a growing luxury class with economic and religious excessesJonah

Amos
745Political unrest in IsraelHosea
735Syro-Ephraimite WarIsaiah of Jerusalem
732Damascus destroyed by Assyria; Israel becomes a vassal stateMicah
689Babylon destroyed by Assyria
626Babylon gains freedom from Assyria;
Josiah’s ‘deuteronomic reform’
Jeremiah
604Babylon controls Syria and PalestineNahum
Habakkuk
598/597Babylonians besiege Jerusalem; first deportationEzekiel
587Jerusalem falls; second deportationObadiah
582/581King of Judah assassinated; third deportation
550Cyrus of Persia threatens Babylon
538Babylon surrenders to Persia; Edict of Cyrus allows first return of exiles led by Sheshbazzar. Temple rebuilding begins and then haltedSecond Isaiah
522King Darius of Persia
Temple rebuilding resumes
Haggai
Zechariah
516/515Temple completed and rededicated
458Ezra travels to JerusalemMalachi
445Nehemiah travels to JerusalemJoel
333Conquests of Alexander the Great
175/164Rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanies and the Maccabean revoltDaniel

Week 47: November 19 – November 25

We have two more weeks left in our Living in The Story journey. For these two weeks, we will read all the Minor Prophets. This is not hard. They are designated “minor” because of their short length, not because they are less important than the Major Prophets.

Suggestion: Plan to read one book of prophecy per day. Ponder again the work of the prophet: not prediction as much as speaking forth God’s word and interpreting current events in light of God’s overarching will.

There is both judgment and comfort here. May we be open to hear each as they apply to us, to the church and to the current events of our world.

Hosea

Joel

Amos

Obadiah

Micah

Nahum

Psalms 128

Psalm 129

Psalm 145

Mark 13-14

Colossians

Justice, Kindness, Humility: Micah and Mark

Week 46: November 12 – November 18

Nehemiah was cup bearer for King Artaxerxes living in the capitol city of the Persian Empire. He received this word about his countrymen who had escaped captivity and remained in Jerusalem:

“The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…”

Nehemiah petitioned the king and was appointed governor of Judah with authority to rebuilding and bringing order.

Nehemiah’s first-person story of returning to Jerusalem is filled with intrigues, plots, gradual successes and witness to the difficult work of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just a wall and a city but also restoring the religion and culture of a people who had lost their way over many generations.

Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews against the hardship and persecution that has characterized this people of God throughout the centuries.

On a day of re-dedication, the story says:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Jews to this day summarize their history with this clever saying:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

Nehemiah

Psalms 10

Psalm 13

Psalm 17

Mark 11-12

Philippians

Ezra and Nehemiah

Ezra and Nehemiah

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally considered a single literary work called Ezra. Although this work was separated into two books by Origen (3d century Common Era) and Jerome (4th century C.E.), the division does not appear in Hebrew Bibles before the 15th century.

At the beginning (1:1–3) and end (6:22) of Ezra, the text asserts that Yahweh had brought about both the return of the exiles to Judah and Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple through the favorable actions of the Persian kings toward Israel. Cyrus’ own decree permitted the rebuilding of the Temple and the restoration of its vessels (6:5), and Darius reinforced these privileges and added to them a curse against any who would attempt to countermand them (6:6–12).

In the Ezra-Nehemiah chronicle, captives were released and sent back to their land with the looted treasures from Solomon’s Temple. The “Ezra Memoir” names Zerubbabel (called governor) and Jeshua the priest as the leaders of this initial effort of rebuilding.

The Persian authorization to rebuild includes not only the work on the Temple, fostered by Cyrus and Darius, but also, because of the mention of Artaxerxes in 6:14, the rebuilding of the walls as well (the term “house of God” in Ezra-Nehemiah may include both the temple and the refortification of the city).

According to the present text of Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezra came to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.E. (Ezra 7:7–8, the 7th year of Artaxerxes) and Nehemiah in 445 B.C.E. (Neh 1:1, the 20th year of Artaxerxes). Nehemiah’s first stay in Jerusalem lasted 12 years, to 433 B.C.E. (Neh 5:14), with a second stay at an unknown time and of unknown duration (but before the end of Artaxerxes’ reign in 424). In 445 Ezra read the law at a public ceremony at which Nehemiah was also present (v 9). All of these dates assume that the Artaxerxes to whose reign the chronology of both Ezra and Nehemiah is correlated is Artaxerxes I (465–424).

the dedication of the Temple in 515 B.C.E.,

the return of Ezra in 458 B.C.E.,

the governorship of Nehemiah, 445–433 B.C.E.,

and his second visit to Jerusalem, no later than 424 B.C.E.

Nehemiah’s first-person story (The “Nehemiah Memoir”) says he was cup bearer for King Artaxerxes living in the capitol city of the Persian Empire. He received this word about his countrymen who had escaped captivity and remained in Jerusalem:

“The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

“When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven…”

Nehemiah petitioned the king and was appointed governor of Judah with authority to rebuild the walls and bring order to the city. (The “cupbearer” attested throughout centuries of Persian history and legend was generally a favorite and trusted youthful official.)

The Ezra-Nehemiah story is filled with intrigues, plots, gradual successes and witness to the difficult work of rebuilding. Rebuilding not just a wall and a city but also restoring the religion and culture of a people who had lost their way over many generations.

Nehemiah the governor and Ezra the priest worked together alongside many persistently faithful Jews against the hardship and persecution that has characterized this people of God throughout many centuries.

On a day of re-dedication, when the priest Ezra read the Law to the assemble people, the story says:

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

As I write this, sisters and brothers across the globe are faced with the deep challenges of rebuilding. In 2017 a trio of hurricanes devastated parts of Texas, much of Florida and all of Puerto Rico. Raging fires destroyed forests, homes and businesses all along the West Coast. Back to back earthquakes shook the foundations of Mexico. Wars and violence in Syria, Central America, across the Middle East and in Africa continue to force people from their homeland. Rebuilding a life takes a lifetime of work.

Jews to this day summarize their history with this clever saying:

They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.

May the joy of the Lord be our strength!

 

Several portions of this article are quoted from the Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. (Quotation noted with italics.)

Outline of Ezra-Nehemiah

I. Return from Exile and Rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 1–6)

II. The Initial Work of Ezra in Seventh Year of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7–10)

III. Return of Nehemiah and Rebuilding of Walls of Jerusalem (Neh 1:1–7:72)

IV. The Climax of the Work of Ezra and Liturgical Responses (Neh 7:72–10:40)

V. Further Acts of Nehemiah; Related Matters (Neh 11:1–13:31)

 

Image from Aleppo, Syria by The Independent, 2016.

Who Is My Neighbor?

2017 was a tough year for hurricanes. America was hit by a back-to-back trio of hurricanes that left our whole nation reeling. But besides all the devastation, there were numerous heartwarming stories about people helping people.

In Houston, after Harvey, Mattress Mack opened up his furniture store for anyone who needed a place to stay. Families hung out on his sofas. Men, women and children slept on his beds. In an interview, Mack said he was moved by his faith. “I had to do this. What else could I do?” he asked.

In Florida, after Irma, as in South Texas, churches, mosques and synagogues opened their doors for their neighbors. Restaurants reopened as quickly as they could and cooked up huge meals to deliver to rescue workers. One millionaire couple opened their mansion for several days to house 70 foster children whose shelter had flooded.

In Puerto Rico, after hurricane Maria, Michelle Narvaez waited in line for an hour in order to buy groceries at twice the normal price. She brought her supplies home, cooked everything she had (because she has no electricity to refrigerate) and shared it with her neighbors. Then the next day, she would go back to the store and do the same thing all over again.

The helping ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Week of Compassion, has been working overtime helping our neighbors who have experienced floods and fires and famine across the globe. I am so proud of my denomination for these impressive acts of compassion in Christ’s name.

It is powerful witness when neighbors reach out to help one another across all our typical differences and divisions. Animosities fall away in the face of disaster.

Compassion builds bridges. Even if it is just for a while.

So my question is: How can the church become a real force to shape our world for compassion all the time? Not just during a crisis, but every day?

Luke tells us about a conversation between Jesus and a shrewd lawyer.

A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus 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.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”

Here is Jesus’ answer:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Do you see how Jesus flipped the lawyer’s question? Instead of “who is my neighbor,” Jesus asked: “will you be a neighbor?”

The lawyer began well. His answers about loving God and loving neighbor are spot on. Except, I think, for this: the man seemed to believe that love is a noun.

Jesus’ parable, however, teaches us that love is a verb.

Love God. With heart, soul, strength, mind. Every thought, every feeling, every action, every ounce of our being is to be shaped by and powered by the love of God.

Or maybe I should say it this way: everything we are and everything we do is to be powered by God’s own love

When Matthew and Mark tell of a similar encounter, Jesus calls these two loves “commandments.” The greatest commandment is to love God. The second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.

So have you ever wondered why God commands love? Isn’t love a feeling, an emotion? How does one command our emotions? Someone tells you: don’t be angry; don’t be sad. Or: Snap out of it. Be happy. Are you able to control your feelings so easily? I’m sure not. There is no way deep human gut reactions can be commanded.

But the kind of love that God calls for is not a feeling; this love is not just an emotion. Love is a verb. The commands are for complete allegiance to God and acts of mercy to others.

One of my favorite phrases in this little story says our hero was “moved with pity.” The man did feel something. His heart was broken for the broken man crumpled at his feet. Pity-Compassion-Mercy moved his heart. And then moved his hands into action. He couldn’t do everything but he could do something. He did what he could.

Love is a verb.

So who is my neighbor? Anyone who needs mercy.

And who is the neighbor? Anyone who does mercy.

We call this little story the parable of the Good Samaritan because it highlights the differences and divisions that normally operated between Jews and Samaritans. Any Jew hearing Jesus tell this story would have been shocked to see the despised, half breed Samaritan as the good guy. But they also would have been aghast at the hard heartedness of the priest and the Levite in this story.

Any faithful Jew, even to this day, prays the Shema every morning and every evening:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

The religious characters in our story must have prayed these words over and over again throughout their life. But maybe they were only words to them. Maybe they believed love is a noun. Evidently every ounce of their being had not been shaped and powered by the love of God.

Or again, shaped and powered by God’s own love.

I say it this way because we humans have zero ability to truly obey these two core commandments. In our broken, bent-into-ourselves self-centeredness, we can never muster enough love within ourselves to fulfill these commands.

So that brings me back to my original question: How on earth can this broken body of Christ ever hope to become a real force shaping our world for compassion?

Only by this:

By allowing God’s love to love through us.

By permitting God’s love to transform our heart, soul, strength and mind.

By opening ourselves up to the love that is the very being of God and letting this movement of love move us to action.

Only then will the body of Christ break through its crippling paralysis and navel gazing and become transformed into a movement of welcome and compassion and mercy.

Only then will the church be able to give witness to the gospel.

The gospel. Remember what the gospel is: “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son.”

Love is a verb. If God acted with such mercy and compassion for the whole world, then what should be our own response to this good news? Love God. Love neighbor.

Our world is starving for love. We are inundated with animosities and divisions and fragmentation; with hatred and violence and disdain; with blame and shame and apathy and hardness of heart.

All around us, neighbors are yearning for love and acceptance and hope.

Who will show them mercy? Who will be their neighbor?

Amen.