Proper 25, year A, Matthew 22: 34-46
“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.”
There are 39 books in the Hebrew bible, 27 books in the New Testament, God knows how many millions of pages of theological commentary and counter-commentary, countless hours of televangelists tirelessly preaching the “right” way; yet Jesus just crystallized the entirety of our faith, and some would argue the Jewish faith as well, in 4 sentences.
This first and greatest commandment was not something Jesus made up on the spot. It comes from Deuteronomy (6:4). It’s also the first part of the Shema – the prayer recited by a pious Jew every morning upon rising and every evening on going to bed. It would have been deeply ingrained in Jesus’s consciousness.
Some of you may have had the opportunity to visit and pray with folks that suffer from health or mental issues that have left them unable to read the words. Have you ever noticed what happens when you get to the Lord’s Prayer? Doesn’t always happen, but often these folks, who may not have communicated meaningfully in years will mumble along, or hum, or bow their heads at that point. It is so deeply ingrained… So much more so would be the shema, repeated twice a day, every day for the entirety of a Jewish man’s adult life (then it would have been only men).
The second commandment Jesus cites comes from Leviticus 19, as Mike read for us today. Plucked from the middle of an intimidating list of purity rules known as the Holiness code, Jesus chose this thought. This simple, beautiful, thoroughly un-human thought.
There we have it. Christianity in 55 words or less. Simplicity itself.
One problem….What does it mean?…Really…What does it mean?
To love one’s neighbor as oneself. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.” And we take a look at ourselves and ask, what part of “all” do we not understand. It’s a tall order as we consciously remember that the poor, and the rude and the dirty and the hungry and the addicted and the mentally ill, and the incarcerated, and the cantankerous are every bit as much our neighbor as the bathed, respectable, hard-working, charming social paragon who lives next door.
Christianity does not carry this ethic of reciprocity alone, by the way. Hillel, a first century Jewish scholar was reported to have been taunted by a pagan, to teach him the Torah while the pagan stood on one foot. Hillel patiently answered, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Taoism, Confucianism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the B’hai faith all tout similar precepts as central tenets. Would that all of us from all faiths would follow it…
Incidentally, Jesus’ commandment presumes love of self. We cannot truly love God without loving God’s children, God’s creation. Do not forget in this equation, that you are as much one of God’s children, God’s creation as your neighbor. Loving your neighbor does not mean hating yourself – it means loving yourself enough to give of yourself.
What does it mean to love God whole-lifedly? It sounds right enough. Of course I love God. God is good. God is love. God is life. God might strike me down if I don’t…
God is such a big thing, though. Such a complex, remote, mysterious being. How do I love something that unfathomable? How do I know if I love something that enigmatic? What’s wrong with me if I don’t feel that overpowering, all-encompassing love at all times?
I don’t have answers to these questions, by the way. I’m just thinking out loud here.
We can feel love for God; but feeling love for God is not actually what Jesus, or Deuteronomy, says. You shall love…imperative. It’s a directive, not a suggestion. I don’t know that I can force myself to feel what I do not feel. So again, what does it mean?
For a scientific, rational, learned culture, we are oddly passion driven. We wait (as a group) to experience feelings, and then we act on them. In this case, that passive reception/response pattern is just backwards. Our love for God cannot be a passive realization of transient sentiment, but an active response of God’s children to God. Loving God is not a feeling – it is a relationship.
I don’t know that I’ve ever quoted Pope Benedict before, by the way, and don’t count on it happening again, but in his first papal encyclical (a document bordering on racy in parts, by the way) he has this to say, “Acknowledgment of the living God is one path towards love, and the “yes” of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all-embracing act of love… The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.” God is more deeply present to me than I am to myself.
We say “yes” to God. And then we work our way through what that means – maybe prayer, maybe making time for God, maybe actively loving our neighbors – working for justice and peace; maybe simple mindfulness. We ask God how.
Poet and minister Thom Shuman dares to ask God how.
how do i love you
when my mind
is so easily distracted
by the yelling on television,
the anger on the roadways,
the dullness of my life?
how can i love you
when my heart
is so broken by
the hatred among believers,
the bitterness of friends,
the forgiveness which eludes me?
how should i love you
when my soul
thirsts for a companion,
hungers for empathy,
longs for a respite from its weariness?
if i stop hanging on
to all my questions,
let go of all my answers,
and be caught by your grace,
i will be able to love
with all i am,
all i have,
all i hope to ever be.
Holy God, help us to love you with all our hearts, our minds, our souls; with passion, with prayer, with intelligence;
To love our neighbors; with forgiveness, with service, with humility;
And to love ourselves; with hope, with joy, with peace.”*
*Prayer adapted from liturgy written by Thom Shuman