It was supposed to be a sermon on marriage. I looked up and read about twenty-five scriptures on marriage. I looked at a couple of sermons on marriage. And then, I thought of the sermon preached at my own marriage about twenty years ago. In that sermon my wife’s pastor, Bob, described an almost infinite list of actions my wife and I would have to perform for each other over the span of our marriage. The intellectual weight of those two lists (one for me, one for her) is very daunting. Then pastor Bob said that the only way to satisfy the list of actions without being driven crazy by the continuous requests was to engage the lists with the love my wife and I each have for the other. When I look at my list with the love I have for my wife the length of the list doesn’t matter.
Remembering this sermon triggered a memory of a parallel concept in scripture. A scripture search brought me to Romans 13:8 and following.
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
This scripture caused me to re-consider the overall topic of the sermon. I’ve been studying the Bible a long time. That study has had a preconceived idea that the Bible, being a book, should be studied like any other book – as if I were reading it. I suddenly had a new way of looking at the Bible. I laid the Bible on my desk flat on one side with the spine facing me. In this mode, I began to consider how the individual ‘love quotes’ in Holy Scripture stacked up. And I did stack some of those quotes up, one on top of the other, like a stack of pancakes.
The great commandment
For me the great commandment has to be the first scripture in this vertical stack.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:34-40)
Why did the lawyer ask this particular question? There were 613 mitzvot in the Torah. These 613 commandments (although there is some disagreement over the exact content of the 613 commandments) are what every “righteous” Jew of Jesus’ time felt compelled to keep. These same 613 commandments are what St. Paul is talking about in Phil. 3:6 when he says “as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless”. And the same righteousness under the law is what the Pharisees where talking about when they said “…we know that this man is a sinner.”
The first part of Jesus’ reply in verse 37 is a repetition of part of the ‘Shema’ found in Deut. 6:4. The Shema Yisrael (or Sh’ma Yisrael; Hebrew: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל“Hear, [O] Israel”) are the first two words of a section of the Torah, and is the title (sometimes shortened to simply Shema) of a prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services.
It would be very difficult for any devout Jew to propose any other solution to the lawyer’s question. The lawyer and his Pharisee friends were intimately involved in keeping the law. Keeping the law as the Pharisees did required a significant investment of time and energy. Jesus was invested in living the law. He had a different point of view.
The great commandment and who is my neighbor
The second scripture in my vertical stack is the story of the Good Samaritan.
In Luke’s gospel, the discussion with the lawyer continues with the lawyer asking another question.
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ 36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus leaves no wiggle room here. The priest and Levite were among the best society had to offer. The Samaritan was among the most despised. The priest and the Levite had good excuses for their behavior. Their position in society required them to be “ritually” pure. If either one of them touched the man who was attacked, in particular if either touched the attacked man’s blood, their ritual purity would be compromised and they would have had to go through a re-purification process.
The Samaritan, free from all such constraints, performed a splendid act of charity. The Samaritan’s actions have echoed down the centuries as each Christian tries to define who comes within the reach of a neighborly care.
Psalm 23 is one of the most loved scripture selections in the whole Bible. I’m putting it third on the vertical stack of scriptures. This selection needs no explanation.
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
To hear the love in the 23rd Psalm, it’s not necessary to go beyond the end of the first verse. “I shall not be in want” pretty much says it all. The Lord is going to take care of everything.
Hosea and Gomer
In terms of popularity similar to the 23 Psalm, Hosea and Gomer are are at the other end of the scale. Hosea’s story is fascinating. Hosea is fourth on my vertical scripture array.
Hosea was a prophet. His story is found in the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. Hosea heard the Word of God and spoke that word to his contemporaries with a fearless abandon.
The situation with Hosea and Gomer is that Hosea married a woman who was a prostitute. The Lord told Hosea to marry Gomer. When she started having sex with other men, Homer asked the Lord to let him divorce Gomer. The Lord said “no”. The relationship between Hosea and Gomer has been compared to God’s relationship with Israel. On a more general level, this relationship can be compared to God’s relationship to human beings. We wander. He’s constant and faithful.
Love and discipleship
A description of how Christians are supposed to enter into relationships with one another is my fifth vertical scripture selection.
34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
One of my continuing interests has been the nascent Christian community. My ministry partner pointed out the other day that before they were called Christians, members of the early Christian church were called disciples. Christian disciples love each other. This is the New Testament Greek word (agape) for self-sacrificial love.
We’re supposed to love each other with the kind of love Christ demonstrated on the cross.
Jesus redeems Peter
My final selection for the vertical scripture array is the story of the resurrected Jesus asking Peter to ‘tend my sheep’.
So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My lambs.” 16 He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Shepherd My sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.…
This scripture tells the story of Jesus’ interaction with Peter after Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected. It’s also important to remember that Peter denied Jesus three times before Jesus went to the cross. Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him. It’s hard to make sense of this scripture without a little New Testament Greek.
There are three words for three different types of love used in the kind of Greek found in the New Testament. Eros is sexual love. This term for love isn’t found in the New Testament itself. Phileo, the word used by Peter to respond to Jesus is the word used for brotherly love. Agapao, the word Jesus uses to talk to Peter is the term for self-sacrificial love.
Once again, we have that statement of an unequal love. It doesn’t matter that Peter can’t come up to Jesus’ level of love. Jesus replies all three times by pointing Peter toward the ministry that Jesus wants Peter to take up.
Peter did take up the leadership role in the early Christian church. He also died on a cross, in Rome some thirty years later.
Our understanding of God’s love is expanding
A former pastor of mine once pointed out that the Christian church changed it’s corporate mind on the topic of slavery. St. Paul has two differing scriptures on slavery. One says “Slaves obey your masters”
(Col. 3:22). Another says “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Gal 3:27,28)
It’s took the Church almost 1900 years to come to the conclusion that slavery was wrong. But we did reach that conclusion. This was the first time that the Church didn’t take the Bible as written, but it chose one interpretation over another.
In our current age Christians are struggling with issues of human sexuality. The Episcopal church has decided that homosexual members can participate in all levels of ordained ministry and are eligible to receive all the other sacraments as well, including the sacrament of marriage. It’s not clear how much longer the world wide Church will take to see the wisdom of these actions. Hopefully, it won’t take 1900 years. There are no second class citizens in the Kingdom of God.
These vertical scripture selections don’t in any way begin to exhaust the descriptions of God’s love for the human race. Three scriptures not mentioned immediately come to mind – John 3:16, I Cor. 13 and 1 John 3:8. Looking at some of the scriptures about love in the Bible from this different perspective opens a new insight into how wonderful and deep God’s love is for us.
It seems appropriate to return to the subject of marriage. The scriptures describe marriage as “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) And “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Mark 10:9)
Without these two very strong scripture references, we somehow instinctively know that marriage is different from all other human activities. The popular press is full of ideas on how to meet the right person to marry, how to stay married once married and how to survive a divorce.
Our instincts tell us there is a potential for a profound love in marriage — love that deepens and broadens as the days and years go by.
Marriage is another gift from God that shows us how God loves us and how we should love each other. The horizontal scripture concept and marriage say the same thing.