By The Rev. Sherry Deets
October 23, 2011
Matthew 22: 34-46
So, we hear in today’s gospel reading that a lawyer asked a question to test Jesus. He asked, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And there is nothing new in Jesus’ answer. It is not something original. In Jewish writings long before Jesus’ time, these two commandments summarized the whole of the law. In fact, Luke’s Gospel attributes this summary not to Jesus but to the Jewish lawyer who asked Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life (Luke 10:27). Jesus asked him, “What do the Scriptures say? The lawyer replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and ‘love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Every Pharisee, every Jew, knew those words. These words are the essence, the beginning and the ending of the Jewish piety. In Deuteronomy we read, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” These words were to be recalled in the morning and in the evening. They were to be taught to the children. And they were recited just before the moment of death.
“And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus continued. Jesus went to the heart of the Pharisees’ tradition — and his own. He went on, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
A good image here is a door hanging from a pair of hinges. Door hinges restrict the motion of the door to the arc in which it is intended to swing. As long as both hinges remain secure and the frame remains square, the door will function reliably, moving where its creator intended and closing securely. But, if either hinge comes loose, the door becomes an obstruction and will soon tear loose from its frame altogether. The loss of either hinge, therefore, is tantamount to the loss of both hinges — and therefore of the door itself. So also, obedience to the two commandments — to love God and to love neighbor — work together to restrict our activity to the straight and narrow path that God has created us to walk. As long as we observe both commandments, we can be confident that we are on that Godly path. However, if we choose to ignore either love, we will soon find ourselves in a spiritual ditch.
How do we do this, though? How do we stay out of the ditch? How do we love God with all our heart and mind and soul? And, for many of us, it is difficult to understand how we can love all of our neighbors. What about the jerks? Really, how? Perhaps it depends on our understanding of what biblical love is.
To love God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems nearly impossible when we think of love as an emotion. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God can be? We cannot look into God’s eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus. If we could, that might evoke in us a profound feeling of love. We might fall in love with Jesus’ beauty and grace if we could know him as Mary and Martha did. But, we are commanded to love what seems to be an intangible God.
In the New Testament, the principle word used for love is agape. Like philia, or brotherly love, it is a passionless love. Eros is the word for passion or desire. The latter two are used sparingly in the New Testament. Agape in the gospels has some connection to emotion, where God cares for God’s creatures and creation.
But, chiefly, it refers to what can be called loving-kindness. It is not passive emotion, but active mercy. It is marked by patience and generosity, again, both acts generated by the one who loves. In short, loving is a choice, not a feeling.
Likewise, loving our neighbor is difficult. If love is merely our passive response to the person next to us, we are likely to be more often repulsed than moved to love. How can one legitimately look into the face of an enemy and feel unqualified love? It is nearly impossible.
But, biblical love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous. Here lies the good news for Christian people. To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you. We treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.
When the action to each is equal, the love to each is equal. This is counter to what we expect, but it is in keeping with what the commandment requires. This means that, to those with whom we are intimate, to those we do not know, to those who may be dirty or repugnant, and even to those who harm us, we can act according to the law of love. We can be merciful and gracious. To love the neighbor as ourselves is to make a conscious choice and act upon it.
And what about love of God? Again, as God chose Israel and elected to forgive her at every offense, so we can choose God and serve God in every way. We can love with our heart: through generosity to God’s people. We can love with our soul: by worshiping God and praying for our neighbors and ourselves. And we can love with our minds: studying God’s Word and letting it correct us, enlighten us, and send us out in loving action to the world.
See how these commandments are connected, “the greatest commandment” and the “second, which is like it”? When we love God’s people, we are always, and at the same time, loving God. They are inseparable. Surprisingly, sometimes our emotions follow suit and we actually feel a love of other, or a love of God. But the emotion is not commanded. Only the action of love is commanded. In Christ, this we can do, even when we don’t feel like it.
So, God uses the law to command our neighbor to care for us. We are all one family, the law reminds us, one family bound by the mutual obligation and delight of love, real love, love that is not just a feeling but is action, not just sweet words but concrete deeds.
The law does not establish our relationship with God — that’s true in both Testaments! — rather, it is the sign of our relationship, God’s good gift to God’s beloved people.
Complicated? Then maybe only another story will suffice. “While they were eating,” Matthew tells us a few chapters after this one, “Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:26-28). This is how much God loves us — enough to demand that we care for one another; enough to forgive and renew us each time we fail; enough to give us back to each other to try once, again, to live the law of love; and enough to give us the body, blood, and resurrected life, of our Lord Jesus … all in the name of love. Amen.
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