I learned it in Sunday School. Or maybe my mother or father first told me long before I was able to remember. Jesus’ answer to the question: “What is the greatest commandment?” Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself.
This question about what was the absolute bottom line in a life with God didn’t come from someone who was trying to trick Jesus, unlike many of the questions that had come before. This question seems to have arisen from this scribe’s deep desire to hear what Jesus, who he considered a learned man, would say about the issue. For at the end of their conversation, Jesus looked at him and announced, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
I struggled with what to say today about the way of Love—the way that Jesus advocated, the way that we are called to every day, and the way that seems more and more in opposition to many of the loudest voices we hear.
I cannot speak about the way of Love without thinking of those 11 parishioners, gathered early on the Sabbath, greeting one another, settling into prayers, and being gunned down by someone who was so filled with hate. I cannot speak about the way of Love without thinking of two black people, living their lives in Kentucky, stopping off at a grocery store, and being gunned down by someone who was so filled with hate. I cannot speak about the way of Love without thinking of the many elected officials who were just doing their jobs, just articulating their convictions, and this meant they were targeted by a bomber who was so filled with hate. And that’s just the big stories of this week.
I cannot speak about the way of Love without thinking of the millennia that the Christian Church has fostered at least an undercurrent of anti-Semitism if not outright pograms and inquisitions. I cannot speak about the way of Love without thinking of the Church’s sorry acceptance of slavery, and its cowardice in the face of “the way things have always been.” I cannot speak about the way of Love without thinking of the discrimination, the outright denial of personhood, and the actual torture and brainwashing in some cases of those of the LGBTQ community within the Church, even our beloved Presbyterian Church. I cannot speak about the way of Love without first confessing that we are a people in need of much atonement, in need of much saving grace, in need of ears to hear and eyes to see and hearts to be infused with love, that we might walk more closely in the way of Love, the way of God.
Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question is just as important today as it was 2000 years ago, and just as difficult to follow. And lest we propagate an undertone of righteous betterment because we’re Christian and that scribe was not—let us remember that Jesus is Jewish. His scriptures were the Torah and Prophets and Writings. He attended synagogue “as was his custom.” His beef was not with the Jewish religion but with the way that the words of God were being twisted by the authorities of his day. He never intended to start a new religion. Like many prophets before him, He was speaking God’s truth, walking in God’s way of love, and he refused to be dissuaded from it, regardless of the consequences.
Jesus’ answer is a taken almost directly from the words of the Torah. The first part, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” would have been familiar words to any Jewish person. It is part of what is called the Shema, Hebrew for “Hear”—and comes from Moses’ speech to the camp in the wilderness recounted in Deuteronomy 6. These words were so important that they were to be recited every morning and every evening, talked about when at home or away, when you lie down and when you rise. They are what is inserted into the phylacteries seen on the orthodox, wrapped around their hands and their foreheads. They are what is placed in the mezuzahs tacked to entryways all over the world.
So it is no surprise that Jesus would choose this as the beginning of his “greatest commandment” answer. Love of God was the first part of the 10 commandments given on Sinai. And when Jesus continued “Love your neighbor as yourself” people would also have recognized this. The 10 commandments not only talked about loving God, but also about how we were supposed to treat one another. The words that Jesus choose come from the passage from Leviticus that we read this morning.
And here is where Jesus pushes the envelope. Did you notice that the Levitical quote talked about “not hating your KIN” and “not bearing a grudge against YOUR PEOPLE.” So when it gets to love your neighbor, one could hear that it was talking about a select group of people. But we know that Jesus saw neighbors in a wider view.
Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the final question is “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
Think about Jesus’ interactions with the Samaritan woman, the Syrophoenician woman, and the Canaanite woman, all of whom were not Jewish. Think of his healings that encompassed not just those of the Jewish faith, but Gentiles as well. Think of his raising the son of the widow of Nain, a Gentile. It is obvious that the gospel writers wanted to show just how Jesus interpreted this commandment of loving neighbor, and who it meant to include.
So how does this help us in our fractured and divisive time?
It is centered on one verb—Love. Love God, with everything you have. Love your neighbor, and Love yourself. And that puts us at a disadvantage—because hate tends to be a much louder emotion than love. Maybe that is the call to us. The way of love cannot be something done in the shadows, done only decently and in order. Jesus did not avoid confrontation, did not avoid messing in the religious and political arenas of his day.
Love, for Jesus, was not a wimpy thing. And we see this when Jesus overturned the money changing tables in the temple because love of money had eclipsed love of God. Or when Jesus specifically healed a man with a paralyzed hand, on the Sabbath, in the synagogue, because love of rules had eclipsed love of neighbor. Or when we see Jesus hanging on a cross, executed for standing firm in the way of love.
In our time and place maybe we need to be emboldened to figure out how we should Love. Maybe it is being more visible—like the Moral Mondays protests held in Raleigh, NC over the last several years led by Rev. Dr. William Barber, II. Maybe it is in speaking out and against the prevailing noise about migrant caravans and those termed “other.” Maybe it is in finding our way to poke at the systems that entrench poverty in our land, or inequitable incarceration for the same crimes, or the preferential treatment in our governing bodies for wealthy people and large corporations.
Maybe it will require us to find ways to band together with those of other denominations and faiths, or even those who have faith only in what’s right. Maybe it will require us to rewire our own thoughts and prejudices so that we can see all as our neighbor, and thus worthy of love. Maybe it will require us to catch a new vision, and plan and pray and work to have it come into being.
I believe this Acting in Love will be stronger and maybe easier if it is something we talk about and do together, as a community. I believe we need to recommit ourselves as soon as possible. For I believe the way of Love, the way of Jesus, insists that we change our world so it is “not far from the kingdom of God.”
The words are simple. Love God, with all you have, and Love your neighbor as yourself. It is the living out of these words that is a constant struggle. But that is what we are called to by Jesus—the way of love.
And so I pray,
May God grace us with wisdom and courage.
May God grant us dreams and visions.
May God guard us from complacency, from temptation, and from hatred and evil.
May God give us the faith of a mustard seed,
the hope that in God all things are possible, and the peace that passes all understanding.
And may God fill us with the Love that arrives new each and every day, the love that burns bright like a light in the darkness, the love that we are promised abides throughout eternity and will, in the end, conquer all.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.