s063g^96 Somerton Park 27/10/96 Sunday 30a
"You shall love your neighbour as yourself" Matthew 22.39
Last week in the reading for the gospel we had the questions to Jesus concerning paying taxes to Caesar and the resurrection, and in today's snippet we have another two. The greatest commandment and Jesus' return question about the son of David. Last week's were probably inspired by the rivalry between the Pharisees and the Saducees - just who would Jesus side with.
Today's question about the greatest commandment may well be inspired by attention seeking. Children go through that time of asking why? It is not that they especially want to know the answer to particular questions, but the attention the child receives is very nice. The other reason for asking may have been to annoy. If Jesus was who he claimed to be, then it was his duty to answer all questions, fulfil all needs. It is a bit like us and our prayers. Does God exist simply to answer our questions? May not God in fact have a better agenda for us than we have for ourselves? In fact he lawyer would well know what the answer was, for the words of Jesus in reply were the words of the Shemah, the scripture to be recited by all Jewish people at that time. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind" was nothing new - or at least it shouldn't have been. Even the second, the loving of the neighbour as oneself, was from scripture - from Leviticus.
So the first thing that needs to be said is that Jesus did not come to set up a new religion in competition with the Jewish faith, or any of the other great religions of the world. In essence he had nothing more to add to the faith of the Jewish nation.
This is a fundamental insight. If our portrayal of Christianity is based on opposition to people of other faiths, or based on how different, better or right our faith is - we are setting our faith up in competition with other faiths. Jesus came with nothing to add to the Jewish faith - he was able to look with open eyes and appreciate the depth of the religious experience of the Israelite nation. After all, how much of what Jesus actually said is in fulfilment of passages of the Old Testament? In fact far more than those of us not brought up in the Jewish faith can imagine.
If Jesus was able to look and appreciate the depths of the religious experience of the Jewish people, there is at least the possibility that he would have been able to look at and appreciate the depths of religious experience of people of the other great faiths, had he had an opportunity to do so. The fact that he sat down and ate with sinners means that he was able even to see and appreciate the depths of the religious experience of those who would not have even considered themselves as religious.
Jesus first and foremost lived the life of loving God and loving neighbour.
There are two directions we can take in our loving. The direction that the religious person may well take is to love God and neighbour "as Christ loved us" - "even to death". So we will view the command to love God and neighbour as a command to ever increasing devotion. But I want to suggest that if this was the sort of love Jesus was talking about then he would have had no opposition from the religious authorities what so ever. We too may protest that it is very often hard work, but we would agree.
The different path we can take in our loving is to love "as Christ loved us" - loving as indiscriminatory as Jesus loved one and all - dying and rising - "once for all". Immediately we see that it is not how gushing we can be over another person that Jesus calls us to be, but that we can let another person be the person they are. This was the real offence to the religious authorities of Jesus' day - not that Jesus loved people - but that he loved the sinners and the outcasts of society just as much as he loved them. Being religious it was right that he had no cause to rebuke them but the real offence was that he should have rebuked the sinner he was mixing with, not to sit down and eat with them!
The command to love is, when one actually thinks about it, an impossibility. If one actually loved only because one had to love - it would not be love anyway. One can legitimately command someone to honour God or worship God or obey God, but the one thing one can't command a person is to love God, or indeed anyone else.
Here the old saying shows something of the truth. "If you love someone let them go - if they don't come back it was not love, if they do it is love". God is in the eternal process of letting people go, as the prodigal father lets the younger son sell his half of the property to go his way to waste it, and welcoming the wandering son home when reality sets in, or expressed another way, when love conquers. God is also in the eternal process of appreciating the faithfulness of the elder son and encouraging him to join in the celebrations at the younger brother's return.
I suddenly realised that there is a hymn with the first line: "O Love that wilt not let me go" - it is actually 525. I guess it actually means love never ceases - for God's love does let go.
The Church spends it's time and energy trying to stop people straying from the "straight and narrow". I have a good deal of sympathy with that - for paths other than the straight and narrow are indeed littered with casualties. But in the end the Church must be like God, letting people rebel, respecting people even when they make decisions which are contrary to official Church teaching. It is particularly difficult for parents when they see their siblings straying. How much more difficult is it for God, who loves us more dearly than even the love parents have for their children.
The love God wants from us is our real love, not pretend love. The real love is the love of the woman who had sinned much and had been forgiven much. When we proclaim this love to a world, I have no doubt it will catch on. Such love we cannot manufacture from our own resources, nor can it be forced into existence by someone from outside.
Love grows. While love cannot be manufactured, we can indeed do things that makes our love grow. Like anything worthwhile, it doesn't fall into our laps, it comes as we work at it.
Or alternatively, love broadens, as we recognise our own limitations and our own sinfulness. We can appreciate that others can be the persons God made them, rather than persons who must live up to our expectations. In the words of the writer of St John's gospel - when Jesus invited those assemble around the woman caught in adultery: "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" - the first to leave were the eldest. (John 8.9) In the final analysis, none of us live up to even our own expectations of ourselves, let alone the huge expectations we think God has for us.
Perhaps we can look at the great commandments, not as things that we are ordered to do, but words like those of God at the creation, when God spake and it was. Certainly none of us, least of all me, love God and neighbour in the really indiscriminatory way God would have us, but God has spoken the word, and as we are faithful and undistracted - it will be. Looked at in this light, God separating the light from the darkness has yet to find its final fulfilment. (Genesis 1.4) But again God has spoken and it is and will be.
For the command to love is good news. We have no need to hate or fear or worry or be jealous or envious. We don't need to be bosom buddies with everyone we meet. Others may simply want to be left alone, to live their lives, quietly and unassumingly, loving as best they can. We can simply let them be.
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