A Division of Labor
By Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Text: Mark 12: 28-37
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,
“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”
David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.
Virginia Morris wrote a phenomenal book with a less than inspiring title. How to Care for Aging Parents. It is not a catchy title but the book will save your life. Morris shows how to care, how to do it. And she reveals that most of us are not prepared to care for the aging, let alone an aging parent.
By and large most people are caring, especially for parents. We care; we call; we worry. Yes, some of us have very complicated relationships or even no relationship with a parent. There are a lot of hours spent in therapy by a lot of people over the complications of being a child and being a parent. Yet, for the most part, kids love parents and parents love kids. That we love, this truth, is the key to Morris’ book.
How to Care for Aging Parents is exhaustive, encyclopedic, all inclusive. She takes you from the first sign of aging to burial arrangements and the execution of wills. The book is intimidating in size; it looks like a telephone book. But as you are quick to find out when you seek to care for an aging parent, there is a lot you need to know. There are a lot of forms, services, needs, challenges, and a complicated web of agencies and advocates. Morris take you through them all.
Before you begin to navigate the maze with her, she lays out the two most important strategies or guiding truths. The first is to form a team. Make sure you build a strong team of helpers, service providers, friends, neighbors, and professionals. See everyone as part of the care team for your parent or parents. It takes a village to raise a child; it takes a team to care for an aging parent.
As a pastor I am called in when this truth is not followed. Usually a middle child is being burned out, used up, taken advantage of because he or she believes no one else will work, who will show up, will come when called. And this may be true and fine when things are normal, but this will never work at the end of life. I have sat with the sibling who is at wits end many times. Almost always I ask them to read Morris’ book and I ask them to please consider a different path.
The second key to her book is this: your only real job, the only thing you must do as a child of an aging parent, the only real job is to love. Love. Morrison puts it bluntly: you can hire out everything but love. You can find a gardener, a cook, an aide, a housekeeper, a sitter, a handyman. You can hire lots of people to do lots of things save one: love.
Sitting with a woman who was 104 I felt the weight of this truth when she told me, everyone I loved has died. As a young pastor I could feel the sadness in her words. Many years later I know also the power of her words. All of her needs were taken care of; she was in a skilled care facility; all of her physical needs were attended to: true. But the depth of care was not enough because love was missing.
People balk when I say, “your primary job is to love.” Makes love sound like a duty, shift work. I get it. Love should be free and offered without demand or requirement. Yet that is love in the time of independence. Think newborn. The newborn doesn’t wait for you to remember them: the baby cries. The newborn has no respect for boundary: the baby clings to you and fears your departure. The need of the newborn is a great demand. Loving babies is a lot of work; loving someone as they lose their independence is a lot of work. Love is a lot of work.
Loving someone at the end of life can also be a lot of fun and a time filled with beauty. I remember a dentist named Edgar. He was an absentee father whose children saw him from time to time. When his kidneys failed him and he started dialysis, his five children got a chance to know him and love him in a way he had yet to allow. He needed them and they rose to the challenge. When Edgar finally made the choice to end dialysis and end his life, I was lucky to watch the fruit of the time spent caring for him. I watched his eldest son cradle his father’s head in his arms and kiss his bald pate. No such affection would have ever been offered if the time of caring had not been found.
One of my grandfather’s was struggling with dementia. He came for a time to stay with us. I thought caring for children was demanding; this was a whole other level. On a trip to the grocery store I left him outside to smoke as I did the shopping. “Don’t wander off,” was my loving instruction. When I came out of the store he was nowhere to be seen. On my second drive around the store I spotted him. Slowing to stop I yelled, “hey, old man, you need a ride?” My grandfather looked directly at me and said, “naw, I am Okay. I am waiting for my grandson. He should be here any minute.” “That’s me; I am your grandson” I shouted. He laughed and said, “It is you” as he got in the car.
There are times and places in life when the swirl of chaos and the manifold of possibilities goes away and we see things clearly. Scholars like to call these places liminal. Liminal is where you see the lay of the land, see what is really happening, you come to place of “getting it.” What you see in a liminal moment is the essence of life, what it really is.
Caring for the elderly can be such a moment. It can provide the liminal insight that love is the essence of life, caring for others is the key to what makes life worth living. Or, caring for the elderly can be just one more task, one more long day when things are frustrating and tiring and annoying. There is no guarantee you will get the meaning of life caring for the newborn as a parent; there is no guarantee you will see the power of love caring for the aging parent.
The first half of our reading from Mark is this truth, essence of life. The scribe asks “what is first of all” or most important. Jesus answers by quoting the shema, or essence of the law. Love the lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength; and, love your neighbor as yourself. What is most important, the essence of the law, is love. The law is the directions for living, the path we are to keep, our duty in life. It is the right path, the requirement. To say the keeping of the law is that we love God and our neighbor makes love a demand.
We don’t like love when it becomes a demand. Love should be free, the inspiration and choice of the one who loves, not a requirement. Love becomes something less when it is demanded. Love as work strikes us as hollow.
A famous devotional begins with this contradiction. John Piper describes a man who brings his wife flowers. The wife says, “thank you. Why the flowers? What is the occasion?” To which the husband responds, “as your husband I feel duty bound to provide tokens of affections from time to time in order to fulfill my responsibility.” That man is in a lot of trouble.
The point is well taken. Love as work, duty, responsibility removes the freedom, the choice. Love is not an exchange of goods and services. Very true. But what if love is our job? What if this is the thing we are supposed to do? Like Virginia Morris said: love is your only real job; the only job you cannot hire when it comes to care.
Love is our job; this is our purpose; this is the essence of what is required of us. According to our passage this is when we get close the kingdom of God. Are we doing our job? Are we good at what we do? Do we love when it is easy? Probably. How about when love is very, very hard?
In our reading today, Mark follows the shema, love god with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself, with Psalm 110. For us Psalm 110 is not very important. It is just one of many. But to the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, this psalm is essential; this is the promise of the messiah, a place of great hope.
Mark has put two of the most important pieces of scripture for the Jews, the shema and Psalm 110, together. What is interesting is that the shema tells us our job; Psalm 110 is God’s job description as it were. God will do bring justice and peace to the earth. That is God’s job.
The reading from Mark today is a kind of division of labor. Loving is our job; bringing justice and peace to the world that is God’s job. We can read these two pieces separately. Yet when you put them together, the shema with Psalm 110, something curious happens. It is as if Jesus is trying to show what is our work and what is not. And perhaps what is intended here is to say, we sometimes confuse our job with God’s.
And this is true. Only God is to judge, that’s God’s job. But we are very quick to judge. Wrath belongs to God, but we do our best to bring our anger on those who hurt or bother us. God alone is lord of the conscience but we often try to determine right and wrong for our neighbors. We are ever prone to be the morality police. In all of these we tend to do a rather poor job when we try to act as God. It is as if Jesus is saying, best if you stick to your job and let God do God’s job.
There is an old story of a young pastor in his first church. He spent most of a board meeting explaining things to the elders, offering many key and important insights about how things are. At the end of the very long meeting one of the elders pulled the young pastor aside. He said, “pastor, you are just getting started in ministry and I believe you have a lot of promise. You will be okay in the end. But there is something, a way of looking at things, that will help you. You see, you need realize you are in sales not management.”
In the end, this is pretty good advice for us as well. We spend a lot of time kibitzing and pontificating and spouting ideas about how things should be, and how wrong some people are about everything, and it’s not our job. Consider the hours we spend worrying about things we cannot control or determine. Consider the posturing and the concealing that we work so hard to maintain when all things are revealed in the end.
What if we are like that young pastor? We are trying to be in management, trying to manage life, when this is not our job? I know that if you don’t control folks, if your agenda is not the way things are, then the sky falls and the pearls are cast to swine. Everything falls apart if you are not in charge. I know; I know. But if what if that’s really not your job. What if all the worry, all the control, all the time spent managing others is really an unintended dereliction of duty. All the time trying to be right was really time spent being wrong. What if our only real job is to love?
I like Virginia Morris’ book. It can really help you navigate the needs of an aging parent. I also like the light it cast on the church. If we take her two basic points and direct them to us, the church is clearly seen for what it is. What if a church is really about building a team of people who care? What if that is really our calling. We build a group of people who care for the hurting, who feed the hungry, who gather the forgotten, who visit the prisoner? What if that is the essence of our calling? We are not in this alone. We are a congregation of care.
And what if, in the end, our real job as a church is to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love when it is easy and beautiful and effortless and love when it’s a lot of work. What if our real job is to love?
All the time we spend trying to control or determine or demonstrate who his right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad, who needs to be corrected or controlled, what if that is not our job? What if we are in sales, not management? What if love is our job. Amen.
- Psalm 110:5 - 7
- Mark 12:28 - 37