In preparation for a mission trip to Honduras, we did a lot of study on the history, politics, and economic development of the country. Part of that preparation included reading Don’t Be Afraid, Gringo, the story of Honduran woman Eliva Alvarado. Her story is the story of all campesinos – the poor and oppressed in her country. Her story is the kind of story that stirs up righteous indignation and makes you want to hop on a plane to go fight for justice. But in the conclusion of her story, she says to the reader that her ultimate desire is for us to stay where we are. She does not want her story to inspire us to come there and “fix” things. Instead, she implores us to fix ourselves – explore our own country’s policies and practices that abet the oppression by the privileged in her country.
I remember when we got to her conclusion, the team sat in silence for a long time. You could see the wheels churning in each of our minds – surely, we know what is best, surely we can fix things if we can just get there, surely there is a way around the way this woman has made us feel impotent. And yet, there was profound truth in her words, and an understanding that to not listen to her final request would be worse than to have not read her words at all. And so, we sat in pained silence, letting her charge sit uncomfortably with us.
Jesus creates a similar silence at the end of our gospel lesson today. Jesus has been poked and prodded by one group after another at this point in Mark’s gospel. In chapter 11, the chief priests, scribes, and elders question Jesus’ authority. Early in chapter 12, the Pharisees and some Herodians try to trap Jesus with a question. Finally, some Sadducees question Jesus about a theological issue. Then today, a scribe asks a “palpably disarming” question – not one to test Jesus, but as one scholar says, an “invitation to the table of theological discourse.”[i] The conversation today is about the greatest of the commandments.
Jesus’ response is not new. In fact, Jesus quotes the shema, the classic text we heard just this morning from Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This is a text the Israelites have emblazoned in the minds of their children, and repeated for generations, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.” “Hear, O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord alone (or the Lord is one).” Jesus tweaks the answer only slightly from the original shema, adding that we should love the Lord our God with all our mind in addition to all our heart, soul, and strength. And he adds that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. But that notion is true to the original commandments as well. When the scribe agrees with Jesus, saying loving God and neighbor as self is more important than any other ritual of the faith, the crowd falls silent, and we are told “no one dared to ask him any question.” In other words, “Jesus’ critics were silenced and the effect was momentarily deafening.”[ii]
So why is the crowd suddenly and dramatically silenced? What’s the big deal about loving God and neighbor as self? We talk about these commands all the time. I mean, Bishop Curry has preached these words more times than I can count. So why do Jesus’ words shock the room into silence? One scholar suggests that the silence is so deafening because those gathered understood something about the reality of love that we modern Americans sometimes neglect. As one scholar explains, “…sometimes — especially in western Christianity — we focus so hard on the emotive and affective aspects of love that we forget its rigor, its robustness, its discomfort. We assume that loving God and our neighbors means expressing friendly sentiments to God in Sunday worship, and exchanging warm pleasantries with the people who live near us during the week. We forget that in the scriptures, the call to love is a call to vulnerability, sacrifice, and suffering. It’s a call to bear a cross and lay down our lives. Biblical love is not an emotion we feel, it’s a path we travel. As the children of God, we are called to walk in love. Think aerobic activity, not Hallmark sentiment.”[iii] An invitation into that kind of radical love – the love of neighbors we would rather not love, the love that is as powerful as the natural, preserving love of self[iv], the love that is a response to the overwhelming love of God for us – that kind of invitation is sobering.
I remember having read Elvia’s disinvitation to come to Honduras and “fix” things felt like a disempowering, painful rebuffing of love. But I think I felt that way because we do not get to dictate what love of neighbor looks like. True love of neighbor is not self-designed but is responsive – responsive to our love of God, and respectfully responsive to the self-articulation of needs by others. Elvia’s self-articulation was deafeningly silencing the way Jesus’ invitation is too. As scholar Debie Thomas explains, “Silence is the appropriate first response to the radical love we’re called to. We dare not speak of [love] glibly. We dare not cheapen [love] with shallow sentiment or piety. Rather, [we] ask for the grace to receive [love] as the wise scribe received [love]. In awed and grateful silence.”[v] Only when we have sat in the uncomfortable silence that recognizes the true love of God and neighbor as self are we ready to take up every perfect gift God has given us and travel the path of love. Amen.
[i] Cynthia A. Jarvis, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 262.
[ii] Jarvis, 364.
[iii] Debie Thomas, “Walk in Love,” October 24, 2021, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2944 on October 29, 2021.
[iv] Victor McCracken, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 262.