Last week I referenced what has become known as “The Great Commandment” – Jesus’ response on what he saw as the core of scripture. Jesus, always a fan of going above and beyond, actually shares two commandments – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
It’s no secret that we usually get hung up on that “all” part. “All” is tricky. All our heart, all our soul, all our mind? Even when we are doing our best, trying to manage the complexity of our world and our busy lives, we seem to fall short of “all.”
I recently re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written on scraps of paper by King as he sat in an Alabama jail, having been arrested during a march for civil rights. I would encourage everyone to read this letter, especially as we wrestle yet again with the issue of justice and race in our country. It is a letter that is especially important for pastors and Christians more generally, because it was a letter written to church leaders. Someone smuggled King a copy of the local paper from the day of his arrest, which contained a letter signed by eight white local clergy, urging caution and calm, encouraging that the fight for justice take place in the courts and not in the streets, and making a vague reference to King as an outside agitator.
So King wrote a response. A view from his perspective – passionate, but also taking care to find common ground with these fellow clergymen. Many of these pastors advocated for justice, too. But at the heart of King’s letter is this question of “all.”
King confesses he is frustrated with his fellow clergy, those who seem to agree that change is needed but always complain about the methods to make change happen. “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” King wrote.
Is it possible for us to truly love with all our heart? To love God and all our neighbors? Our world feels so divided it certainly can seem impossible. And yet that is what we are called to do.
And it begins, as King reminded, with understanding. If we are to even get close to loving with all our hearts, then we need to move past the shallow level of understanding we so often have of others. Before we speak words of judgment or spread them across social media, we should first take time to listen and see through the eyes of our neighbors. Deeply. Because, as King notes near the beginning of his letter, we are, all of us, “tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
James Muske is pastor at Bethesda Lutheran Church of Malmo.