A little while ago, I came across an article in Forbes magazine with a peculiar headline: “How a 15,000-year-old human bone could help you through the coronavirus.” The article said:
“Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.
But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.
Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.”
13,000 years later, a zealous missionary named Paul would write about this kind of care, this fundamental compassion, this elemental empathy, in his letter to a civilization in Rome, to a church he founded, telling these new Christians, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”
“All the rules, all the laws, all the codes of conduct, are summed up with this one simple statement. Love is the fulfillment of the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.”
To our Christian sensibilities, this is one of those statements that has us going “YES! That’s right! Duh!” It seems simple and obvious – fundamental, even. It seems like this would be a pretty basic, easy-to-grasp concept for civilized people. Which makes it that much more upsetting when people claiming to be Christian, claiming the name and power and spirit of Jesus Christ, show a complete lack of civility in the wrong they do to their neighbors. And let’s be honest – there’s a lot of incivility happening all around us we can easily point to. From the jerk on the sidewalk who coughed in your face while not wearing a mask, to the evil and oppressive and questionably legal actions from the highest office in our country, we can be hard-pressed to see how love is, in any way, the law of the land.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor.
This reminds me of the question a lawyer asked Jesus after Jesus told him that the greatest commandment was the love of God and neighbor. For reasons we will never know, this lawyer wasn’t willing to accept just yet that the greatest commandment was to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, so he asked a challenging question: “And who is my neighbor?”
Who is my neighbor?
He’s not asking what district lines are, or who lives in the building. He’s asking, “exactly WHO qualifies as the kind of person I have to love? Who’s in, and who’s out? Surely not everyone deserves to be loved. There are some really uncivilized people out there. Who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
I mean, come one, it’s practically inconceivable that God would expect us to actually love ALL people, right?
Some people are downright uncivilized. Some people would DEFINITELY leave us to die if our femur was broken and there was a bear headed our way. Some people will definitely vote out of misguided self-interest, even at the expense of millions of lives. Some people will definitely look at you as you are suffering, and wonder what you did to deserve it. Some people teach their children that it’s okay to harbor hatred for other people based on the color of their skin, or their political affiliation. Some people encourage violence – even death – against someone if that person holds drastically different political views. Some people just downright celebrate the wrong done to their neighbor.
Surely God doesn’t expect us to love THOSE people, at least as much as everyone else.
Maybe, then, we aren’t all that different from that lawyer.
Maybe we, too, hear God’s commandments and still say, “But really, Jesus – exactly who is my neighbor?”
How many of us are truly eager to love our neighbor – each and every one of them – as ourselves?
I know I’m not.
Now, it’s important to pause for a moment and say a few words about love. Love does not mean limp permissiveness. Love does not mean condoning anything and everything, especially when it is evil and directly against the word of God. Love DOES mean calling out evil when we see it. Love DOES mean holding people accountable for their sins. Love DOES mean, sometimes, that we have to turn some tables over in the temple when people have lost their way.
That’s actually part of the whole discipleship package. Just look at God’s words to Ezekiel. There are a whole bunch of wicked evildoers God is deeply disheartened by, and God really wants them to turn from their evil ways. And no sooner does God tell Ezekiel this, than God reminds Ezekiel: you don’t get to be a couch potato here. It’s actually YOUR responsibility to help make that happen!
It’s almost like God is telling Ezekiel, “Silence is violence.”
If we hear the commandment to love our neighbors and only think it applies it to our neighbors, then these beautiful and inspiring words cease to be Scripture. They cease to be the word of God, and they turn into a glorified Op-Ed column. Commentary on the state of the world. Judgment of all those guilty ones, of whom we are not a part.
If Scripture pacifies us,
but doesn’t transform us,
then it ceases to be holy words for holy people.
This is what Jesus is referring to in the gospel reading today, when he talks about the reconciliation that is necessary to being a beloved community. We cannot be gathered as the body of Christ if we are harboring animosity, grudges, and hate. And we cannot be Christians in the world if we walk away from worship feeling better about ourselves and no differently about our neighbor.
So, over and over again, I return to the great commandment: love your neighbor as yourself. The commandment that God gives not only to other people, but most especially to me.
See, while I personally hate rules, and I love to break them, Christianity isn’t about the rules we break. It’s about the lives we mend.
It’s pretty simple: If you are doing the loving thing, you are doing the lawful thing. The measure of civilization is how much we value the healing of one another’s brokenness.
Love is the highest law; and it is the only law that stands a chance at transforming us.
After explaining the broken and healed femur to her student, Margaret Mead said, “Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”