In the first century Roman world, status was critical. By someone’s place in the social order, he or she would be allocated value or worth. The emperor stood at the top of Roman culture. Everyone else like politicians, soldiers, business people, general citizens and slaves had their places in relation to those above and below them.
Like Rome, every outlying city had its own social stratification. People attempted to maintain or raise their position in many ways. Making major gifts to the city was a way of gaining public honor. Funding a building, education or some other public facility like a bath or gymnasium, which were very important in Roman culture, were all ways to gain status. So was supporting an artist or artisan, guiding a young person or helping people find work.
These were all very good things, but the reasons for doing them were self-serving. It was called patronage and it was essential to the social system. Beneficiaries gave respect and status to their patron – flattery that had currency because it elevated the patron’s power, prestige and position.
In return, the beneficiaries expected more favors, assistance and general support. Conferring honor to those higher up in the social order was an economic transaction that had material benefit for those lower on the scale. It was a system designed to keep people in place in the social order by making each dependent on the patronage of those above them.
Of course, the highest in rank was the emperor who claimed the status of a god.
When Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” Jesus separated economic transactions from the social exchanges. Give the tax money to the emperor, but give all the other social responses like respect, honor and glory to God.
As an itinerant speaker, Paul stood to hold a significant place in this social pyramid.
Entertainment in the Roman world was limited compared to the modern age. There were sports in the major cities, and dramatic performances. But for the commoner it was an oral world, where people were entertained by rhetorical skills and good speech. Great orators like Dio Chrysostom and Aelius Aristides traveled the world and gained acclaim by giving speeches. Lesser known speakers achieved status by showing skill in giving impromptu speeches and participating in debates. There were also philosophers and wandering teachers who did the same. Traveling from place to place, they lived off the fees people paid to hear them speak or to be taught rhetoric or philosophy. This kind of work, of course, required the same kind of social flattery in order to prosper.
But, while Paul benefitted from his gifts in oratory and rhetoric, Paul claimed a distinction from these travelling entertainers. Paul had a strong sense of call by God – a particular call that flew in the face of the cultural norm of seeking status and profit. Read through 1 Thessalonians and you will be struck by how this consciousness of God pervades what Paul said. Paul lived in the awareness of God’s actions in his own life and the life of others.
This commitment to God and the good news about Jesus freed Paul from the need to achieve status and elevate reputation. Status, being conferred by God, opened up for Paul a lifestyle that correlated with that commitment. Paul’s concern can be summed up from verse 8, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
The question in the Gospel lesson continues in this same vein. What is the greatest commandment in the Torah?
This question and Jesus’ answer show how rooted Jesus is in Judaism, whose priorities and insights Jesus affirms. Jesus shared the summary of the law that is cited. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
This is called the Sh’ma and is to Jews what the Lord’s Prayer may be to Christians. The Sh’ma is a declaration of faith – a pledge of allegiance, if you will, to the One God.
It is said upon arising in the morning and upon going to sleep at night.
It is said when praising and when crying out to God.
It is the first prayer that a Jewish child is taught to say and the last words a Jew wishes to say before death.
The Sh’ma is read before the Torah on Sabbaths and recited at the end of the holiest day of Yom Kippur.
Throughout the ages, the cry of Sh’ma has symbolized the ultimate manifestation of faith in the gravest situations.
With the Sh’ma on their lips, Jews accepted martyrdom at the Inquisitor’s stake and in the Nazi gas chambers.
The Sh’ma is Judaism’s central creed. And, as the greatest and first commandment, it is also ours. If we were to take all our creeds and confessions and remove from them the concept of loving God, they would become rules of an empty and legalistic faith.
Jesus, however, takes the central tenet of Jewish faith and goes further. Jesus interprets the Sh’ma in terms of Leviticus 19:18, which reads: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your brothers or sisters; you shall reason with your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Jesus said “the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Like it.” What does that mean?
The word in the Greek is homoyos. Technically, it means “of similar nature as…”, but is translated as “like” and also “the same as”. This word appears many other times in the gospels – especially the Gospel of Matthew. Every time a parable begins with “the Kingdom of God is like…” the word is homoyos. This simple word of comparison is how Jesus taught about God. And, here again, Jesus appends the first and greatest commandment to another by using homoyos.
What does loving God with all our hearts, minds and souls look like? It looks like loving our neighbors as ourselves. Or, if we prefer, how do we love God with all our hearts, minds and souls? We do it by loving neighbors as ourselves.
It sounds simple, but we know it isn’t. It is no easy task for us to shun praise, reputation and status – to put love before profit.
There will always be the temptation to strive for privilege.
There will always be the temptation to see after our own needs first or to take care of our own.
There will always be the temptation to pre-qualify people for our caring and justice-seeking – to judge the worthiness of others before extending the grace God asks of us.
The hard work is facing those temptations and overcoming them. We do this empowered by the Holy Spirit, but it still isn’t easy. It is, however, worth striving for.
Just as with the Pharisees whom Jesus took to task, our faith, worship and love for God falls flat when we rely on regulations and rules to determine someone else’s worthiness for grace and exclude them from our care and love. It is necessary for society to have rules and regulations to avoid chaos and anarchy. That is the nature of society – of people living together. But the nature of God – and, by extension, the way our faith is lived out – is to be forgiving, reconciling, grace-filled and generous.
It isn’t easy to free the prisoner – to feed the hungry – to clothe the naked – to care for the sick – to give sight to the blind – to welcome the stranger – to forgive those with whom we have had hurtful disagreements.
It isn’t easy to push aside judgment to make room for grace.
We know it isn’t easy because it doesn’t make us popular with those in positions of power – it leaves us vulnerable – we run the risk of being laughed at – it is counter-cultural in the society in which we live. It is, however, that which we are called to be and do.
As Christians – as a church – as a community – we are enabled to repeat the words of Paul in verse 8 to our neighbors. We have the God given desire deep within our hearts to look at those around us and be able to say, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
When we do this – when we love our neighbor as ourselves – we do indeed love God with all our hearts, minds and souls.