Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
Tripping Up your Opponent
Have you noticed how today, you cannot watch television for more than thirty minutes, without seeing election ads for every elected office, each political party, and every divisive issue out there. Policy makers on both sides of the aisle are finding little nuances of disagreement or “out of context” statements, to try and trip up their opponent and undermine their adversary’s credibility. The use of these tactics, on both side of the aisle, creates confusion, undermines truth, and tears down trust. It should not surprise us that even after two millennia, some things have never changed.
In today’s gospel, the Pharisees, who were experts in the law were trying to trip up Our Lord Jesus with a legalistic question , “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” This was no casual theological inquiry over coffee with friends, the religious leaders were trying to trip up Jesus, so he might make a public mis-step over the law. Torah, or the religious laws the people of Israel followed for centuries, included over 613 commands. These scholars were asking Jesus to pick just one over all the other. They were actually trying to get Jesus to choose one as better than the others, and by so doing he would make a public statement against the legal religious system as a whole.
By using this tactic, they hoped Jesus might take a particular position that they could use to discredit him. As in all of Our Lord’s encounters with his detractors, he would not fall for it. Rather, he cut to the chase and proclaimed Good News clearly, which was so much more than a simple answer, for which the Pharisees had hoped. The bottom line is the law experts misunderstood Jesus’ mission, and were threatened by his radical teaching, because it thwarted what they valued and what they thought was the only way. Jesus taught them and teaches us another way; the way of love.
Missing the Point
Throughout the ages, followers of Jesus have interpreted Our Lord’s teaching in ways that were inconsistent with his mission of reconciling love. For example, the church has taken part in many atrocities throughout history; the Crusades and the Inquisition, Even in the last century, we have stood by while modern day systems have turned a blind eye to the suffering of others.
Because of misguided interpretations of the teachings of the faith, we have missed the point that love overshadows law. In the last few decades, followers of Jesus have in some instances turned a blind eye, or even participated in the perpetuation of violence, poverty, and war. Even the church has missed the point of what Jesus means by “the two commandments (on which) hang all the law and the prophets.”
“Love God and Love your Neighbor.” The two greatest commandments Jesus revealed, as a result of the lawyer’s inquiry may seem simple, but they are in no way a watered-down version of the law. No, Jesus makes it clear that loving God and loving neighbor is the standard, by which we should measure the fruits of our lives.
Hanging on the Law and Prophets
Following Jesus is not an easy way of life to be honest. Discipleship requires us to love and not merely live under a minimum standard of legalistic behavior. We must embrace fully the ultimate command, which reminds us that we are children of God, and sisters and brothers to ALL PEOPLE (not just the ones we like).
Obeying the 613 Torah laws became for some folks, a lifelong pursuit of legalistic proportions that resulted in failure and success and missing the point. Following the law was intended to define one’s relationship with God and with each other in community. However, people followed the law for its own sake, and that following became about the individual and their obedience and self-serving compliance. Sometimes following the law left sisters and brothers in dire circumstances, and undermined the intent of the law.
Healing lepers whom the law did not allow one to touch, forgiving sins of an immoral woman whom the law required to be stoned, restoring a blind man on the Sabbath, which the law forbid were all ways the Jesus obeyed the intent and heart of the law. Jesus not only preached “Love God and Love Neighbor,” he lived it in every action of his life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension. He showed us that the purpose of the law was not to leave others with withered hands, blind folks with no hope, lame folks without restoration, and sinners without the grace and mercy of God.
Following the commandments, or the law itself is empty, if it does not result in a change of heart, a renewed commitment to the well-being of all people, and a life of love. Jesus redefined the practice of following the law for its own pursuit, and declared that mere acts of obedience to God’s law is insufficient. Loveless law denies our rightful place within God’s creation. Law alone attempts to convince us that we are an island unto ourselves and we have no responsibility to one another.
The greatest commandments affirms that we are individually and corporately bound together as sisters and brothers, under the fatherhood of God. The great commandments also deny our option to choose, whom it is we can call neighbor. If we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we must love those for whom Christ died to save. This is where we find the qualifications, for whom it is we can call neighbor.
Just look around you right now. Yes, there is your neighbor sitting in the pew near you but wait, do not stop there. We have to widen our horizons and realize that our circle of neighbors, extends beyond this place, our own family, and our city, state, and nation. Loving those who are hard to love is not easy, but God’s commandments, on which hang all the law and prophets, that kind of “no holds barred/no strings attached” kind of love is what Jesus demands of us.
How to Love as Jesus Loves
So, you may be sitting there asking, Canon Eric how do I love like that? Here is how you begin; pray for people you cannot consider your neighbor quite yet. Pray for those you find hard to love. Pray for your neighbors. Next, pray to God to give you the strength, courage, and desire to seek God’s best for the other. The act of “Loving God and loving neighbor” begins with holy conversations through which, we seek to be transformed by God. Prayer is so much more than a one-sided conversation. Prayer takes us out of our self, and it aligns our heart with the heart of God. Prayer changes things, because prayer changes us.
I hear about people all across our nation who are coming together with one mind, one heart, one spirit, joined with the heart of God, and sharing the sadness and pain of others. Although we cannot join hands now, we can join our hearts together in prayer, and we can lift up our voices together. We are one body; sisters, brothers, and neighbors all.
When we through our common intercessions and thanksgivings to God, acknowledge our sisters and brothers’ suffering, when we share their suffering with them, we are truly beginning to love them. When we join together in the unity of our common weaknesses and struggles, something amazing happens; love. When we acknowledge our utter dependence on God and each other, something amazing happens; love.
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Our Lord Jesus Christ said this, and I am convinced he approves of this message.