Sunday, April 17, 2011

But One Thing is Needful

This is another in a series called “Gay Gospel Doctrine Class,” which takes a lesson from the LDS Church’s (Adult) Gospel Doctrine class and presents it from a gay perspective.  Today’s lesson, based on Lesson #14 from the Gospel Doctrine Manual, focuses on two passages from Luke 10, the first pertaining to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the second containing the story of Mary and Martha.

The Greatest and First Commandment

We are all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan that resulted from an exchange between a “scholar of the law” and Jesus.  But discussions of this parable tend to focus almost exclusively on the second part of the exchange, rather than the first.  Me being the contrarian that I am, I would like to focus on the first part of Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer.

According to the 10th Chapter of the Gospel of Luke, verses 25-28, There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test [Jesus] and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?"  He said in reply, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live"  (New American Bible Translation).

This passage is similar to another account, contained in the 22nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, wherein a Pharisee asks Jesus “which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus replied:  "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.”  He then added, “the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."

The centrality of this greatest commandment was and is central to Jewish theology, life and culture.  It is the Shema, the great Hebrew prayer recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  It is this prayer that is contained in the frontlets worn by Orthodox Jewish men and this is contained in every mezuzah fixed to Jewish door frames, in compliance with the commandment set forth in Deuteronomy 6:6. 

I have recently had occasion to ponder, however, whether this greatest commandment is given today the deference and attention it deserves.  It occurs to me that, in the tradition with which most of us are familiar, the emphasis of these passages is usually placed on loving one’s neighbor, rather than on loving God (which goes hand in hand with the traditional emphasis placed on the parable of the Good Samaritan) and there is otherwise little emphasis placed on developing a love for God.

But if we assume, as I think we must, that the first and greatest commandment is to love God, I would like to pose a couple of questions.  The first:  how do we develop that love?  How do develop and strengthen a love for God that is all-consuming, that encompasses our heart, soul and mind?  I would be interested in hearing your answers to these questions. 

Again, in the tradition with which most of us are familiar, the belief is pretty widespread that we earn, prove and demonstrate our love for God by rendering service and by keeping the “commandments” (by which is generally meant a lengthy list of things we are “supposed” to do).  This approach, however, strikes me as “other-directed”; i.e., it is not directed toward God but (i) toward other people, and (ii) toward an organization’s requirements.

I would like to propose one answer to my question.  It comes from 1 John 4 and is summarized in verse 19 of this chapter:  “We love him because he first loved us.”  But there are many verses in that chapter that read like a love letter:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.  Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins [New American Bible translation].”

This last verse echoes the famous verses from John 3:16-17, beautifully set to music in John Stainer’s hymn, God So Loved the World, from his oratorio, The Crucifixion

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish,
but have everlasting life.
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world;
but that the world through him might be saved.”

So, if we start from the position that God has amply demonstrated His love for us and invites us to love Him in return, I think that puts us in a very different position than us believing that we have to earn His love or work for His love.  God calls us into a love affair, if you will, with Him.  The question is whether we will accept His invitation; this, if you will, is the first and great commandment.

My second question is:  How do we demonstrate our love for God?  Here again, I turn to 1 John 4:

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us … We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him … If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. This is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”   

This passage brings to mind another famous passage from the 14th Chapter of the Gospel of John.  Verse 15 is very well known in the LDS world (“If ye love me, keep my commandments”), but is typically used as a stick to promote “obedience.”  I would like to suggest, however, that what this scripture is really talking about is keeping the Commandment to love, as expressed in 1 John 4.  Looked at in this way, verses 15 and 16 take on a different meaning, as is so beautiful expressed in Thomas Tallis’ composition, If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments, wherein the stern voice of the “disciplinarian” is replaced by the loving invitation of the Savior:

“If ye love me, keep my commandments.
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter,
that he may bide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth.”

Choosing the Better Part

The second part of this lesson concerns the story (in Luke 10:38-42) of Mary and Martha.  You remember it:

As [Jesus and his disciples] continued their journey he entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him.  She had a sister named Mary (who) sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.  Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me."  The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.’”

There have been innumerable sermons, talks and commentaries made on this passage of scripture.  I am not going to go into all of those (some of which make some very interesting points), but simply make the following point:  Martha was consumed with business and work, trying to perform service on behalf of the Master and His friends;  Mary, however, chose to sit at the Savior’s feet and listen to Him.  The point I take from the Savior’s commendation of Mary is that it supports what Jesus proclaimed as the greatest commandment:  to love God.  Service is good, but it doesn’t take the place of communing with God.  But one thing is needful.

Being Loved and Loving as We Are

There is a common notion in some corners of Christianity that the love of God is conditional upon obedience or other “conditions”.  This is false.  Such a notion, among other things, can make people feel unlovable, outside the pale of God’s love.  It also breeds fear and stifles a reciprocation of the love that God offers us.
This is obviously the case for many gays who come from a religious tradition that treats homosexuality as deeply sinful and gays as deeply flawed individuals who are – bottom line – unlovable.  They are taught that they are unacceptable the way they are, that they have to change in order to be worthy of God’s love and grace.  This is a lie.

I was reminded of these thoughts recently when I read an article written by Rev. James Alison, a gay Catholic priest and theologian.  He wrote of Benjamin O’Sullivan, a Benedictine monk who had killed himself “because this extremely attractive, apparently self-confident, effervescent young man had been unable to stand up as an ordinary gay man.” Benjamin had looked “… at the world through fear-coloured spectacles, and fear darkens rather than illumines what it projects.”  He was “… the sort of person who can't stand up and be what they are, who can't trust in the goodness of what they are being given to become … the sort of person who labours instead in a world of half-truths, any belonging being a half-belonging, because always feeling that 'if they knew' then 'I wouldn't really be allowed here'. Which translates into a permanent and deep feeling of 'I'm not really allowed here'.”

Alison went on to observe that “any sort of presentation of the Christian faith which says 'I love you but I do not love you', or 'I don't love you as you are, but if you become someone different I will love you' is in fact preaching a double-bind, a stumbling block, a pathway to paralysis.”  Alison then wrote of two imaginary conversations, one between a false god and the self, and the other between the Unambivalently loving God and the self:

Let's imagine the conversation between a false god and the self:

Fg: I want to love you, but I can't love you as you are, because you are sinful and objectively disordered.
Self: Well, what then must I do to be loved?
Fg: You must become someone different.
Self: I'm up for it, show me how.
Fg: Love isn't something that can be earned, it just is.
Self: Well then how do I get to become the sort of person who can be loved?
Fg: If I were you I would start somewhere else.
Self: That's a great help. How do I start somewhere else?
Fg: You can't, because even starting off for somewhere else starts from you, and you can't be loved.
Self: Well if I can't start off from somewhere else, and I can't start off from where I am, what can I do?
Fg: Give up on the love thing; just obey and be paralysed.

That's how powerful it is to receive our sense of self, our identity, our desire, in imitation of, through the regard of, eyes which give us a mixed message, a double bind.

Now if the Gospel means anything at all it means that the Good News about God is unambivalent, that there are no 'if's and 'but's in God, God's love is unconditional. And this means, above all, that there are no double binds in God. That God desires that our desire should flow free, life-giving and untrammelled, because it is in that flow of desire that we are called into being.

Well, if that is the case, imagine then what might be a conversation between the Unambivalently loving God and the self:

UlG: I love you.
Self: But I'm full of shit, how can you love me?
UlG: I love you.
Self: But you can't love me, I'm part of all this muck.
UlG: It's you that I love.
Self: How can it be me that you love when I've been involved in bad relationships, dark rooms, machinations against other people?
UlG: It's you that I love.
Self: But.
UlG: It's you that I love.
Self: But.
UlG: It's you that I love.
Self: OK then, so are you just going to leave me in the shit?
UlG: Because I love you, you are relaxing into my love and you will find yourself becoming loveable, indeed becoming someone that you will scarcely recognise.
Self: Hadn't I better do something to get all ready for this becoming loveable?
UlG: Only if you haven't yet got it that it's I who do the work and you who get to shine. Because I love you, you are relaxing into being loved and will find yourself doing loveable things because you are loved.
Self: I think I could go along with this.

Or to put it in a nutshell, when faced with the standard Irish joke about 'How do I get to Dublin?' and being told 'If I were you I wouldn't start from here', the Gospel response, that is to say the regard of Christ, tells us: 'I will come with you starting from where you are'.”

We love Him because He first loved us. Where we are.  For who we are.  Period. 

Can I get an “Amen”?


  1. Love really is pure. Beautiful lesson Vic; Amen!


  2. This post spoke directly to me. I have had that false God conversation. Also, I spoke on the subject of loving God at this month's Affirmation conference in SLC. I'm going to reread it now.

  3. @Brad - I'm glad the post was meaningful for you. Continued best wishes as you enter the home stretch!

  4. This great and loving lesson reminded me of this Fred Rogers song:

    It's you I like.
    It's not the things you wear.
    It's not the way you do your hair,
    but it's you I like.
    The way you are right now.
    The way down deep inside you.
    Not the things that hide you.
    Not your toys.
    They're just beside you.
    But it's you I like.
    Every part of you.
    Your skin, your eyes, your feelings,
    whether old or new.
    I hope that you'll remember
    even when you're feeling blue,
    that it's you I like.
    It's you yourself.
    It's you.
    It's you I like.

    Thank you, Vic. Amen and Amen.

  5. Thanks for sharing that, Ned. What a great guy he was.