The Most Important Biblical Verse
Being asked to preach at the Sunday morning closing service of an interfaith conference was, for me, a very great honor. It was also a great challenge. This was the ninth in a series of Interfaith Peace Conferences at the United Methodist Conference Center at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina. Usually the preacher at this service has been a Christian guest speaker. It would be my task to bring the conference to an inspiring close with thoughts people could take home with them. I took that very seriously.
This series of conferences was the brainchild of Rev. Wright Spears, a pulpit minister who had done much for inter-racial and interfaith relations in his career. The format involved bringing together religious figures from the three Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to address a theme. Having attended, planned, or lead many conferences in my career I can say that nothing I had ever been a part of was like these events. We were able to bring leading experts from all over the world to speak at our conferences. Perhaps it has been the beautiful setting of Lake Junaluska, but there was something very special about the spirit I felt there.
The theme of this conference was “Meeting The Other: Can We Talk?” This idea of finding ways to help different kinds of people, people who believe different things, talk with and understand each other is on many people’s minds right now. I know that there are many programs and projects around the country addressing this theme.
I have been involved with one such for decades – The Compassionate Listening Project. Their motto is, “An enemy is someone whose story you have not heard.”
Together with a friend who is about 180 degrees from my political views I started a discussion group to facilitate dialogue among people who hold a variety of political and social beliefs. We call ourselves the Curmudgeons. I hold very strong views, but cannot regard myself as having a monopoly on right thinking. I learn far more from people I disagree with than from people I agree with.
What was my sermon’s theme going to be? We would have had three days of talking about dialogue among people of different faiths as well as social and political views. Many of our regulars would be fairly described as liberal Christians, but at this conference we also had forty rural pastors from all over the country who decided to combine their annual meeting with ours. That certainly increased the mix.
I asked myself, “What is the prerequisite for dialogue among different kinds of people?” My answer was that we are all people. We have our humanity in common. Each of the three Abrahamic traditions shares that idea. For several years I have been thinking, writing, and speaking about how I see Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three faces of one faith, the faith of Abraham. This is hardly novel. Others have long pointed out that these three faiths have one common origin and one sense of tradition. The New Testament relies on the truth of the Jewish scriptures and the truth of Islam likewise rests on the prophets who came before Mohammed from Adam to Jesus.
My method of presenting this idea would use sources from all three faiths as if they were one source, which, in my thinking, they are. The result is the sermon that follows. I do not preach from a written out text, but from notes. In order to present this sermon here, I have gone back to my notes and made of them a readable (I hope) text.
One day Jesus was talking with some Pharisees and one of them asked him a question.
‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matt. 22:36-40)
Jesus’ answer was the Jewish answer and, what is more, the Pharisee answer to that question. A century later a group of Rabbis was holding a similar discussion on the same question. This was in the time of Rabbi Akiva, who usually gave the best and final answer, but not in this case.
Rabbi Akiva said the most important verse is, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. יי (Lev. 19:18). But this time he colleague Ben Azzai bested him. “Ben Azzai teaches: ‘This is the written account of Adam’s family line. When God created humankind, he made them in the likeness of God.”, (Gen. 5:1) this principle is the most fundamental. (Sifra on Leviticus 19:18)
If you ask most people who know scripture which is the most important, the most fundamental verse in the Torah, they are very likely to say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” because it is the Torah’s version of The Golden Rule. Why would a verse most people would pay little attention to top that? Martin Buber noted that this verse could be correctly read, “You shall love your neighbor – he is like you.” The lack of clarity in Hebrew makes TaNaKh difficult to translate, but that opens the way to multiple readings of the text. Rabbinic tradition says that every word in the Torah has seventy meanings, which is a way of saying countless meanings.
Here are the two verses that together show the principle at work here. This is the record of Adam’s line – When God created humankind, it was made in the likeness of God; male and female were they created. And, when they were created, [God] blessed them and called them Humankind. (Genesis 5:1-2) The basis for the Golden Rule, in whatever form, is that every human being is the same, an avatar of the divine. We are all, every one of us, part of one family.
After Cain murdered his brother Abel, God asked him, “Where is your brother Abel?” Of course we all remember Cain’s answer, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God responds, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10) The commentary on this found in the Talmud leads to a well-known principle of Jewish ethics that follows this idea of the unity of humanity. The word translated as “blood” is actually in the plural form in the text.
For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his brother, that it is written: the bloods of your brother cry unto me: not the blood of your brother, but the bloods of thy brother, is said — i.e., his blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants. For this reason was man created alone, to teach you that whosoever destroys a single soul…, scripture imputes [guilt] to him as though he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul…, scripture ascribes [merit] to him as though he had preserved a complete world. Furthermore, [he was created alone] for the sake of peace among men, that one might not say to his fellow, ‘my ancestor was greater than yours, …; again, to proclaim the greatness of the holy one of blessing: for if a man strikes many coins from one mould, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings, the holy one of blessing, fashioned every person in the stamp op the first man, and yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single person is obliged to say: the world was created for my sake. (SANH. 37a)
If we were all created the same in one mold or image, why is there so much diversity among human beings? That Biblical story is familiar – The Tower of Babel. After the Flood all of humanity was living in one place under one king. They all spoke one language. They got the idea of building a great tower to challenge Heaven. God looked and said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they propose to do will be out of their reach. Let us then go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:5-7) This text raises many intriguing questions, but for us it is the story of why humanity is so culturally diverse despite all being of one kind.
Why would god do this? Why divide humanity in a way that causes us not to understand each other? Isn’t this the cause of wars, oppression, hatred, and injustice? It seems that we were not ready for a united humanity and are required to go through thousands of years of conflict. Does this make any sense at all? We find a wonderful answer in two passages from the Koran.
We have revealed the Book to you (Muhammad) in all Truth. It confirms the (original) Bible and has the authority to preserve or abrogate what the Bible contains. Judge among them by what God has revealed to you and do not follow their desires instead of the Truth which has come to you. We have given a law and a way of life to each of you. Had God wanted, He could have made you into one nation, but He wanted to see who are the more pious ones among you. Compete with each other in righteousness. All of you will return to God who will tell you the truth in the matter of your differences.” (5:48)
O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you….(49:13)
Recently I reread one of Teilhard de Chardin’s books about his vision of a common human destiny. He saw us as on an evolutionary path towards what he called The Omega Point. This would be the culmination of Creation and, among other things, would bring all of humanity together as God intended. Pope Benedict XVI explained this vision beautifully.
“And so we can now say that the goal of worship and the goal of creation as a whole are one and the same—divinization, a world of freedom and love. But this means that the historical makes its appearance in the cosmic. The cosmos is not a kind of closed building, a stationary container in which history may by chance take place. It is itself movement, from its one beginning to its one end. In a sense, creation is history. Against the background of the modern evolutionary world view, Teilhard de Chardin depicted the cosmos as a process of ascent, a series of unions. From very simple beginnings the path leads to ever greater and more complex unities, in which multiplicity is not abolished but merged into a growing synthesis, leading to the “Noosphere” in which spirit and its understanding embrace the whole and are blended into a kind of living organism.”
Physics tells us that the universe is undergoing an inevitable process of increasing disorder in the universe called Entropy. What de Chardin, who was a scientist as well as a priest, taught that human activity can reverse entropy itself. “This will be the end and the fulfillment of the spirit of the Earth. The end of the world: the wholesale internal introversion upon itself of the noosphere, which has simultaneously reached the uttermost limit of its complexity and centrality. The end of the world: the overthrow of equilibrium [the Heat Death], detaching the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix, so that it will henceforth rest with all its weigh on God-Omega.”
Our teacher A. J. Heschel put it this way. “For whom does he plant who plants a tree? For generations to come, for faces he has never seen. Higher purposes are shrewdly disguised as ends of immediate usefulness. It is as if divine cunning operated in human history, using our instincts as pretexts for the attainment of goals which are universally valid, a scheme to harness man’s lower forces in the service of higher ends.”
So where do we, you and I, fit into all of this? Each of us is so small in the scheme of things. It is essential that we go through our days encountering other people and recognizing them as being just like us, even though they are different. Every single person is a living avatar of god – that is what it means that we are made in the divine image. Some like to say, “we are in god’s hands.” I see that differently, as did and do so many of the spiritually great people we try to learn from. We are not in god’s hands – we are god’s hands.
In closing I want to share with you my favorite teaching on dialogue between people of differing opinions. It comes from Rabbi Menachem-Mendel of Kotzk and was taught to me in this form by my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l).
If I am I because you are you
you are you because I am I
I am not I and you are not you
If I am I because I am I
you are you because you are you
I am I and you are you
[And we can talk.]
May each of us be able to see in our human encounters the face of God.
If anyone reading this wants to hear the original sermon from the conference, it is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNZ0Ga9N5YY&t=33s My sermon begins an hour into the recording and nothing much happens for the first forty minutes or so. However I do recommend listening to the music of the resident musical group on the recording. They were very much the heart of our conference – Abraham Jam. They are three accomplished singer-songwriters, one from each of the Abrahamic faiths. You can find them on Youtube as well. Also on Youtube there are major addresses from our last three conferences.
If anyone reading this would like to know about our next conference, which will take place on November 21-24, 2019 at Lake Junaluska. The theme will be “Peace and The Arts” There isn’t much posted on it yet, but go to http://www.lakejunaluska.com/peace for information.
 This is usually a misunderstood term. The Pharisees had nothing to do with the Priests who ran the Temple in Jerusalem, but were actually their opponents. During Jesus’ lifetime the Pharisee party was engaged in creating a form of Judaism that took much of Jewish practice from the Temple and put it in the hands of individual Jews. They taught that Moses received an Oral Torah in addition to the written Torah (the five book of Moses) which had been handed down from one generation to the next and which they were in the process of writing down. The arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees were all typical of Pharisaic arguments that actually continued for centuries after the destruction of the Temple and the rise of the Rabbinic Judaism which we still have today. I believe Jesus himself was a Pharisee and these conversations and arguments were the conversations and arguments of colleagues, even when Jesus says, “you Pharisees…”
 The Torah translation I am using is “The Contemporary Torah,” a gender-sensitive version published by JPS.
 I cannot resist the temptation of quoting my favorite comment on the story, which is by Franz Kafka. He wrote, “If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.”