Homily: October 26, 2014
According to ancient scribal tradition,Jewish Law contains not just 2 commandments, not just 10, but 613 separate commandments. Some teachers then divided the 613 into 365 prohibitions (one for each day of the year) and 248 positive commands (one for each bone of the body). In this vivid and charming fashion, they indicated that the Law, handed down by God, should govern all our days and all our bodily movements. It requires complete devotion.
I start with this background because if the Pharisees— who are professional scholars of the Law or Torah remember— were trying to find a question about the Law that would trip Jesus up, why do you think they gave him such an easy one? "Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Any observant Jew could answer that without thinking, and Jesus was nothing if not a good Jew. So he answers right off the bat and gives a good, conventional Jewish answer. In fact, like last week, he goes further and gives two answers: "’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 is nothing at all in Jesus' reply to which the Pharisees can take exception. In fact, one of their own, Rabbi Hillel, one of the greatest of the Pharisaic scholars and a contemporary of Jesus, gave a similar answer to a similar question. The story is told that a non-believer came to Rabbi Hillel, and said, "Rabbi, I will become a Jew if you can recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg." Hillel stood on one leg and said, "That which is hateful to you, do it not to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah; everything else is commentary. Now, go and learn it."
Still, as conventional as Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees may be, it begs two questions: First, what did he mean by “love”? And secondly, whom did he mean by “neighbor”? If you remember nothing else from this sermon, if you remember nothing else from any of the sermons I’ve preached, I hope you will remember these two points.
First, today’s gospel employs perhaps the most dangerous four-letter word in the English language. That word, of course, is “love.” What makes the word “love” so dangerous is the fact that it’s repeated a thousand times a day from radio and television to the internet and greeting cards, and yet, most of the time, those who use it don’t really mean Jesus’ kind of love at all. Usually in the mouth of popular culture the word love means infatuation or sexual attraction. But when Jesus commanded us to love God, to love our neighbor, he used a Hebrew word that the Greeks later translated as agape (ah-gah-pi). Agape is the sort of love with which God loves us. Agape is the sort of love that God is, according to the writers of John: a complete, unconditional, out-pouring of self in the service of another. Note, too, what Jesus did not say. He did not say "serve God" or "obey God;" he said "love God". From first to last the Bible is a love story, my friends. A love story that we are asked to emulate, one in which we are chosen to play a part. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind" is really less a commandment and more an invitation looking for a response, that good Matthean theme again. It is an invitation to respond by fully loving the One who has always loved us. It is, in fact, an invitation to become more fully who we are meant to be. For we were created in the image of God for one reason above all others – that we might love God and others and creation as God loves us. As the author of Matthew has been telling us for weeks now, feelings are secondary, talk is cheap, behavior is everything; so we could paraphrase Jesus’ commandment in this way: As God loves you—completely, utterly, unconditionally—so shall you love your neighbor and in so doing show the fullness of your love for God. The two are entwined in such a way that we cannot separate them, but it all starts with God and flows back to God.
So that’s my first point. The second point I want you to remember concerns this: just who are these neighbors that Jesus wants us to love? For the answer to that question we really have to turn to the gospel of Luke, which presents this story somewhat differently.
In that gospel the recitation of the two commandments is followed by the parable of the Good Samaritan, which the evangelist uses to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Do you remember? Of course you do. The writer has Jesus recount the tale of a man beaten by thieves and left for dead who is assisted by someone he scorns as his inferior and his enemy. And at the end of the story, Jesus asks his questioner, “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” And the answer is, “The one who showed him compassion,” to which Jesus replies, rather like Rabbi Hillel, “Go and do likewise.”
The conclusion I draw is that we are the neighbor of any person who has needs of which we are aware and whom we can help. No matter what prejudices may divide and separate us, to be a neighbor is to stand in a place of compassion, to suffer with another. I don't know about you, but all this leaves me feeling uncomfortable. My gut reaction to this profound challenge to practice agape with my neighbors— and to recognize as well that the person in need of compassion just might be me— is to feel discouraged and even a little depressed. I am tempted to say that Jesus sets before us an impossible ideal, but that would be too easy; it would let us off the hook. The trick—as I have said before—is to aim at loving our neighbors, to aim at allowing ourselves to be open to being loved, being fully vulnerable to one another, in communion with one another, to really try to do that, and at the same time to know that we will fail. And to realize that God sends sun and rain on the just and unjust alike, gives life and health equally to those we love and those we mistakenly despise, that you and I and all of us need God's lovingkindness as much as anyone in the whole creation.
Perhaps poet W.H. Auden said it best,
O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing Although you cannot bless.
O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start; You shall love your crooked neighbor With your crooked heart.
It seems that the answers Jesus gave are perhaps not all that easy after all; that the “Go and do likewise” does not come naturally. But God does not ask us to love our neighbors with the perfect love of perfect hearts because God knows (how well God knows!) that we do not have perfect hearts. It is the crooked love of crooked hearts that God asks us to share with our neighbors.
In trying to love, however, we may just discover that we succeed in loving. And we will find, in the end, that loving our neighbors is not an accomplishment, it is God's gift, who made us in love for love, and only by the grace of God are we able to love at all.
Let us pray. God of the hungry heart, you loved us long before we knew ourselves to be lovable and you love us still; we know that your will for all people is health and salvation. Help us so to love you, and our neighbor as ourselves, that our lives may be transformed in ever greater likeness to you and to your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.