I learned the first part of our gospel lesson today in Sunday School. It sounds easy enough to teach to small children—Love God (with heart and soul and mind), and Love your neighbor as yourself. Not too many things to remember. But as we grow older, we realize that Jesus’ “greatest commandment” isn’t an easy one to follow. Because it doesn’t allow us to continue to live “in the manner to which we may be accustomed.”
The verb in this “commandment” is LOVE—not the namby-pamby love that we confuse when we talk about loving ice cream, or loving to do our favorite leisure activity. It’s not even the love that, if we are lucky, we feel from our own family—relationships and experiences that tie us to others, a comfort zone of people who “have our back.”
No, Jesus is talking about something that is more active, more destructive and constructive, more radical. This radical love, calls us to think and feel and ACT, into what Jesus called the kingdom of heaven (in the gospel of Matthew). Radical love blasts away any hierarchy, any exclusion, any making of some to be “other.”
Paul, who met Jesus only after the resurrection, heard the message loud and clear—saying in Galatians 3:28 “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul heard, and proclaimed, the message of Jesus that the kingdom of heaven meant a “whole new world.” A world closer to what God had intended. Not that we have gotten there. But Radical Love points us in the right direction.
I found it interesting that the writer of Matthew choose this be the closing message of Jesus’ campaign to make a difference in his religious institutions. Jesus has been having this animated conversation with the Pharisees and Sadducees, answering questions and telling parables that the religious leaders do not appreciate. It is after this particular exchange, we hear: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”
So this was the devastating argument? The condensing of the Ten Commandments into TWO child-friendly phrases? And the convoluted question Jesus asks them about the Messiah? That was the winning stroke? Was it that the religious leaders thought, “this guy is crazy?” Or was it that the Messiah question underscored the way Jesus’ thinking went to the bedrock of their very lives?
Much of my musing on this text was driven by a question posed by our Seasons of the Spirit commentary which asked, “Is this story, (and the story of the Bible) a story of domination or a story of liberation?” Do the people of God, the followers of the way, bring our world closer to this “kingdom of heaven” that Jesus has been trying to slip into our brains through sneaky parables and hard hitting statements? Or are the people of God, the followers of the way, just one more place where hierarchies triumph, differences are exploited, and status quo (comfort of those in charge) is labeled, “right.”
Let’s take a look at ourselves, putting us in this story as the religious authorities. Has Christianity in the United States always followed the “Love God (with everything you have) and Love your neighbor as yourself” commandment? If we look just at our history on racial questions, we would have to say No. We know that white Christians from the beginning of our country until … today—that some white Christians have proclaimed God’s moral backing for their belief that people who call themselves “white” are superior to any other people. This has led to denominations (or parts of them) backing slavery, participating in Jim Crow and other attempts to “control” anyone of color, and even now, not loudly proclaiming their denunciation of anything that looks, talks, smells, or even gives a hint of anything other than racial equality and racial justice. That is why I titled this chat “Radical Love”—because ALL of that, would NOT be “what Jesus would do.”
The second part of the “greatest commandment” “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”— asks us to reorder our steps, to stop looking at who is up and who is down, to get rid of that vocabulary, and try to imagine, envision, bring into being a different way of personal relationships, a different way of organizing ourselves socially, politically, religiously. Maybe this was the culminating conversation with the Pharisees because the magnitude of the changes Jesus was espousing finally became clear. This radical love meant changing each and every piece of their, of our, world!
This is even what is happening in that weird Messiah talk. Let’s not get into academic parsing of Lord and my Lord, or trying to see this as a Biblical sleight of hand by Jesus.
The “Messiah is whose son” question is yet another example showing us how much Jesus wanted to shake up the established “order of things.” Messiah was the one for whom the Israelite people had been waiting, who they thought was son of David, (and that was why Matthew goes to so much trouble to have a geneology in his first chapter tying Jesus to the line of David). Ok, Jesus says. “What if Messiah isn’t “son” at all, but is Lord or “above”? This might be an easy concept for us—but it wasn’t for those of Jesus’ time.
For them, David was the pinnacle of time—the greatest kingdom, leading to the building of the greatest temple by David’s son Solomon. A central portion of the writings of what we call the Old Testament was the Psalms, ascribed as written by David. It was the golden time. And Messiah (David’s son) was supposed to get all of them “back” to that mythic high point.
I think I hear Jesus messing with that human desire to move toward the comfortable, the highly esteemed. Jesus’ point in his final query was “What if what God intends isn’t in succession from what was before? What if what God intends, what if Messiah, is something completely different? What if the world isn’t what we have always seen it to be? What if we saw things with God's eyes?”
This leads us back to that idea of radical love. That God becomes the first thing we think about in the morning, and the last thing we think about at night. God becomes the object of our heart, the object of our soul, the object of our mind. And because of that laser like focus, we begin to see everyone else as God sees everyone else—even as God sees us.
Beloved. Gifted. Precious.
Of course, that would tear down every barrier. It would completely dismantle the hierarchies that we hold so dear—of status and experience; of race and class; of gender; of language; of origin; of (you put in your own descriptions). The Pharisees recognized the dangerousness of this. It threatened to topple their power base—It threatened to get them in trouble with the oppressors—It threatened to change everything. And so they stopped asking questions, and they started planning how to get rid of this One called Jesus.
It’s a clarion call to us—those of us who follow Jesus—we are also supposed to step into that radical love. It shouldn’t surprise us that when you try to change anything much less everything—that there is push back. The powers and principalities like where they stand. They don’t want to share. They don’t want to step down. They certainly won’t admit to being in the wrong. We have to love radically anyway.
It sounds so “easy”—Love God and Love your Neighbor as Yourself. But if it were easy, the kingdom of heaven would already be fully realized. No, radical love, is something that each generation grapples with—hopefully with more successes than failures.
We are given this time, when we have to stand with Jesus on what this world should look like. We can’t be discouraged that there are those who claim the name Christian who do not seem to have heard the same message. That is for God to sort out.
What we need to hold onto—as we press forward, is listening to God, learning from God, putting our lives into God’s hands. And that propels us into changing our world, so that neighbor is loved as much as self.
And this means so much—it means trying to make sure all have enough to eat, and a place to sleep, and a fair wage, and access to healing, and good places where learning occurs, and each being afforded the respect they deserve, just for being themselves.
It means putting aside all the hopelessness of living during a pandemic; climbing above the mudslinging of hate groups and those who do not follow radical love; encouraging the dreaming of wild dreams and figuring out the economics to give them a try. It means partnering with whoever has heard the whisper, the shout, of the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb, and has a hand on us even today. It means picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves off, and getting “on the way” of Jesus once more.
You can see in the last six months what happens when there is a radical lifestyle change—how many things are interconnected. We cannot become discouraged. We will not finish the project. We have been given this lap to run. May we run it faithfully, honestly, courageously, and be ready to pass the baton on to those who will come after. May we have gained a few steps on the darkness and chaos that plagues our world.
In the morning light, O God,
May I glimpse again your image deep within me
The threads of eternal glory
Woven into the fabric of every man and woman.
Again may I catch sight of the mystery of the human soul
Fashioned in your likeness
Deeper than knowing
More enduring than time.
And in glimpsing these threads of light
Amidst the weakness and distortions of my life
Let me be recalled
To the strength and beauty deep in my soul.
Let me be recalled
To the strength and beauty of your image in every living soul.
“Celtic Benediction: Morning and Night Prayer” by J. Philip Newell (Friday morning, Opening Prayer) Alleluia, AMEN.