Principle Lessons: Song of Songs 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
In December 1868, the Swiss philosopher/theologian Henri-Frédéric Amiel, wrote in his journal about his dear friend, Charles Heim. Charles Heim was dying and Amiel had not received a letter from his friend since November, a letter in which Charles had apparently said his final farewell. This, in part, is what Amiel wrote,
“…how keenly I have realized that strong craving which many feel for the last words, the last looks, of those they love! Such words and looks are a kind of testament. They have a solemn and sacred character which is not merely an effect of our imagination. For that which is on the brink of death already participates to some extent in eternity. A dying man seems to speak to us from beyond the tomb; what he says has the effect upon us of a sentence, an oracle, an injunction; we look upon him as one endowed with second sight. Serious and solemn words come naturally to the man who feels life escaping him, and the grave opening before him. The depths of his nature are then revealed; the divine within him need no longer hide itself. Oh, do not let us wait to be just or pitiful or demonstrative toward those we love until they or we are struck down by illness or threatened with death! Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”Amiel, Henri-Frederic, The Journal Intime, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8545/8545-h/8545-h.htm.
In the early chapters of Genesis, God says to Abraham: “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). How intimately tied together those two are: The act of our being blessed and the act of our blessing others. This is so evident (even aside from the religious experience) in the human experience! The earnest exchange between two individuals fills the heart and enlivens the spirit – whether between parent and child intent on the expression of mutual affection; between lover and beloved receiving each other in open embrace; between dear friends travelling the journey together. Love received is love shared.
One of the Revised Common Lectionary options for today’s Old Testament lesson is from the Song of Songs. It is, by the way and unfortunately, the only time in the three year lectionary of Sunday lessons that the Song of Songs is read. The Song of Songs (the doubling is a linguistic tool in Hebrew to express the greatest or most perfect) is a compelling expression of the giving and receiving of love. It is a poem of love’s first blush ignited by the holding of her lover’s hand for the first time. There is a growing excitement in this poetic response to the very thought of the approach of her beloved:
The voice of my beloved!Song of Songs 2:8, 9-10
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
Goodness! The poet captures well the human soul that revels in the simple, mysterious act of offering one’s heart to another for the first time, for no reason other than the joy that its giving and receiving bring. Love received is love shared.
The author of the epistle of James builds a similar theme. Too often we find that duty and performance co-opt our spiritual fervor and bring us far from the passions that once impelled our religious choices. In this epistle, James reminds those who have apparently grown weary or lost their direction that they need to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers.” James reminds them that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above.” Moreover, the gift was “birth by the word of truth” given so that we might be “first-fruits.” In other words, we have been given the gift in order that we might be doers who act, caring for the orphans and widows in their distress, compelled by the Spirit to to join God in the act of self-giving love. Love received is love shared.
Acts of kindness, patience, forgiveness – so many Christian virtues are second nature when one is in right relationship, and the sole motivation shared is love of the other. We are simply seeking to imitate God’s love for us as manifested in Christ Jesus.
There is a parable in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov that hits the point. The parable is narrated on the lips Grushenka to the youngest brother Alexei:
“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Book 7, Chapter 3.
If only the old woman had had it in her heart to say, “The onion is ours,” surely the onion would have been strong enough to have pulled all of them out together.
The insight in this parable echoes the wisdom of Jesus. In the narrative we heard today from Mark’s gospel Jesus is set upon by the Pharisees, who for all their earnestness and concern for law have moved far from what James would call religion that is “pure and undefiled before God.” The Pharisees are distracted – fervent as to the law and earnest about their own virtue – but distracted in their abuse and lack of concern for others.
Jesus’ way remains far simpler: It is from within! Covenant law and virtue are good things! However, they are not and should not be the focus, and they should never be the end! Rather, it is from within, from our being and in our self-giving that transformation comes. And it is from there that we will quicken the heartbeat of our lives and the lives of those we encounter. St. Augustine of Hippo once said, “Love God and do as you please.” We laugh because we miss the import. It is vital that we hear Augustine’s order: First, love God! Then, do as you please. Indeed, if we are truly filled with love of God, what pleases us will be the stuff of God! Rumi, the 13th century Muslim/Persian poet, spoke eloquently of the same, “Look inside and find where a person loves from. That’s the reality, not what they say.”
What does God require of us: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. “Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”
Love received is love shared.