In the gospel lessons of the last few weeks Jesus’ adversaries keep firing questions at him. Then, wouldn’t you know, it’s a lawyer who decides to put him to the test. “So, Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Cut to the chase, he’s saying. Give us your bottom line. What do you really think is the essence of life?
And Jesus answers him without hesitating, “‘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.”
The greatest commandment is the command to love, Jesus says. Love is the key to everything. And God commands us to love.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it? After all, you hear the word “love” just about everywhere these days. Back when I lived in Virginia a couple of decades ago, I saw bumper stickers everywhere with “Virginia is for lovers.” I never could quite figure out what that meant.
I remember dorm rooms in the 1960’s and ’70’s with a poster that just had the four letters L-O-V-E on them. And of course, the radios of that era were filled with love songs, or what I would call today wonderful co-dependent love songs. They were all about how life will end if we can’t have a certain person in our lives to make our lives complete. “I can’t live, if living is without you,” one said. “All you need is love,” we were told. “Ain’t too proud to beg,” someone else says. “Love me tender, love me true.” One after another, these songs declare that the meaning of the universe hangs on the meager attention of a beautiful young man or woman.
Of course things began to get a little rawer later, when songs came along like “Gimme Some Loving” and “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” But I’ll always remember that good, practical love song “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
Love in our time is all about feelings. We speak of people “falling in love.” It’s something that happens that we have no control over. Either we “feel” love toward someone, or we don’t. We’re the passive recipients, even the victims, of our feelings. That’s why the classic expression of love through the ages has been Cupid with his arrow, shooting people so that they hopelessly lose control of their feelings. In recent years a much admired CEO of one of America’s biggest corporations sat for an interview with a reporter, and soon he and the reporter had “fallen in love.” And then, victim of Cupid’s arrow that he was, he walked away from his wife and family to follow this new love.
Years of involvement in pre-marital counseling have convinced me that most couples head into marriage because they “fell” in love. They hardly realize that falling in love is just the beginning of a long journey in learning how to love. The commitment they often think they are making is not “for better for worse, for richer for poorer,” but something more like “we will stay together as long as our love shall last.” As long as it feels right.
The catch, of course, is that feelings are notoriously unreliable. They can change at the drop of a hat. Lives get pulled and stretched, and people change. A relationship based primarily on feelings is built on sand.
But neither the God of Moses in the Old Testament nor Jesus in the New seems to have any interest in feelings of love. “You shall love the Lord your God,” says God; “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus. In John’s gospel Jesus says, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.” Love is something that Jesus believed could be commanded. We are told to love God with our hearts and minds and souls and our neighbor as ourselves. This love isn’t something that we need to feel.
Love in our Jewish and Christian traditions is a practice, a skill, a demanding discipline. It entails an arduous journey out of our self-absorption into caring for the well-being of another. As secular psychiatrist Erich Fromm wrote in his book The Art of Loving, loving is an art, the apex of what it means to be human, and it takes the kind of practice required to be an accomplished pianist, or dancer, or scientist. If we want to become full human beings, we must slowly, carefully learn the art of loving.
One of the surprises of marriage is that deep, enduring love is the result of marriage, not its cause. There is not one word in the service about how married people are going to feel about their spouses. They are asked, “Will you love him or her, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to him as long as you both shall live?” With those words they are promising to act in certain ways. It’s a matter of the will. Part of the miracle of marriage, though, is that in making and keeping these promises they come to feel more “in love” than when they began.
A woman I was talking to about joining the church once said to me that she couldn’t possibly join because she recognized clearly that she was not able to love everyone around her, especially the people in this particular church. My answer to her was simple: you don’t have to like them; you just have to love them. Jesus was never interested in whether a disciple liked someone. What will save our souls is loving each other, moving out of our own self-absorption and personal preferences to care for our neighbor. And then comes the surprise, that as we learn to love each other, chances are, we may even start learning to like each other.
Here in today’s gospel, Jesus laid down the heart of it all for his followers. Love is the main thing, the sine qua non, the essence, the key. When the tough lawyer challenged him to name the greatest commandment, he wanted Jesus to cut through the 613 separate commandments in Jewish law, all the rules, all the guidelines covering every area of life. And Jesus responded with the Israelis’ own core command, the Shema, which Jews had been reciting and wearing around their foreheads and nailing to their doorposts for centuries. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”
Then Jesus shocked them. They thought he was finished. But without missing a beat he said, “There’s a second commandment that’s like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Wait a minute; where did that come from? Sure, it’s a line out of the Book of Leviticus, but since when has that been pasted in with the first? As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, Jesus is saying you can’t say “God” without saying “neighbor”; it’s almost hyphenated—“God-Neighbor.” To love God means to love your neighbor. To love your neighbor is the active form of loving God. (From Brueggemann, The Covenanted Self).
For Jesus, your neighbor is the one who needs you, whether that person is across the dinner table, or next door, or across the city or the world. Haven’t we all come to feel as if the hurricane victims in the Gulf Coast are our neighbors, and in some ways isn’t that true of the earthquake victims in southern Asia? And loving this neighbor isn’t about swelling music and warm feelings, but unsentimental, concrete acts.
A few years ago I read an account by a Chicago lawyer named Thomas Geoghegan describing his first encounter with a soup kitchen. He was overwhelmed by the unpleasant smells and the terrible shape the men were in, but most of all he was disturbed because he had expected to love the poor and to be filled with a warm glow, and he wasn’t.
And so he complained to his priest friend, who replied, “You’re not down there for self-actualization.” But Geoghegan protested, “I didn’t feel any love for them.” The priest replied,
So what?…The church says nothing about that…Look, these nuns [who run the kitchen] aren’t liberals. They are conservative…They don’t care about “love” in our modern, interpersonal way. We, the liberals, want love: we go to soup kitchens to be loved. The nuns go there to feed people. That’s it. Give them something to eat.
It’s that cool, clear, unsentimental love that you find in people whose lives are given to loving. My bet is that you can see it in people who work in homeless shelters here in Northwest Washington supported by the Community Council for the Homeless. I wager that’s what you would see in the health-care clinics and soup kitchens across Rock Creek Park, and in the interfaith meetings where people are putting their heads together to push hard for a better school system and affordable housing.
Loving our God-neighbor means changing diapers and doing the dishes and living with the needs of our children. It means speaking to someone who has hurt us. It is telling a friend she’s drinking too much. It is putting our career in jeopardy because our family needs us. It is tutoring kids in Adams Morgan or Anacostia. Love is making sure that something other than the bottom line alone drives our business decisions—things like the welfare of employees or the good of the community.
The ultimate issue for all of us is whether we ever learn to love our God-neighbor. Worshiping God is where we begin. We come to places such as this to open our minds and spirits to the One who made us and loves us. But that alone is only a start. It shows us the things that count—compassion, forgiveness, active love. And it opens us to receive Christ’s Spirit and love that make those things possible. Church is meant to be a School for Love, a place where we can learn and practice the skills and art of loving. And this Cathedral’s mission is to lead us in the most profound worship of God possible, and then to propel us out in service to our God-neighbor.
There’s a short story by John L’Heureux called “The Expert on God” about a young priest whose faith has been riddled with doubts for years. One day he happens on a terrible car accident and finds a young man trapped under an overturned car and dying. After a lot of struggle the priest is able to get the young man out from under the car and holds him in his arms as he begins desperately praying that the young man will survive. The priest anoints him and prays more, but it’s clear to him the prayers are useless. Still he prays on, but seems to be hearing only his own empty words being hurled up toward heaven.
Then the story closes in this way: “The dying boy turned—some dying reflex—and his head tilted in the priest’s arms, trusting, like a lover. And at once the priest, faithless, unrepentant, gave up his prayers and bent to him and whispered, fierce and burning, ‘I love you,’ and continued until there was no breath, ‘I love you, I love you.’”
At long last this priest became “an expert on God.” As he embraced this dying man, he moved away from all of his preoccupation with himself and gave himself away in an act of pure love of his God-neighbor. “I love you,” he said as he held him, “I love you.”
“‘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.”
And on these two commandments hang our life’s meaning, and our world’s hope.