Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6,13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
I have a colleague who, when confronted with seemingly plausible statements, requests, or situations that still have a mark of improbability, has a single, one-word question as a response. “Really?” says my colleague when someone advances an idea that looks so good on paper, or in theory, and in implementation becomes quite something else. Really! Once again we enter the world of first-century Palestine in today’s gospel with Jesus having dispatched both the Herodians and the Sadducees who sought to entrap him. Today we hear the Pharisees take their turn at testing, if not besting Jesus.
The question at first glance doesn’t seem very menacing at all. It looks on the surface like one of those great theological questions that serious religious thinkers debate all of the time: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” In response Jesus gives one, faithful answer that unites two distinctive commands in the law that have become to us inseparable, “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is, of course, the greatest command and the first Jesus names. And without taking a breath he goes on to add, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In his response Jesus unites our love of God, a fairly late notion in Hebrew Scripture, with love of our neighbor and self. It is remarkably straightforward, virtually a slogan. It is so simple. In this command is the whole will of God. I cannot help but wonder when those who had gathered heard Jesus’ response, if they too didn’t shake their heads and mutter in Aramaic, really? It’s likely been my own response to this gospel for so long that when I looked to see if in old computer notes I had ever been given any spiritual wisdom about this passage, it became clear that I had given the Sunday away for preaching to countless seminarians. Yes, really.
As if the great commandments weren’t enough, Jesus goes on in the gospel to pose a question or two of his own that have to do with the sufficiency of calling the Messiah, the son of, or descendent of David and leaving it at that. What looks like an arcane passage at best is, in fact, what transforms this command from one with which we comply to one that is the basis of an ethical and moral life. To claim as Jesus does that the greatest commandment is to love God and neighbor equally and subtly imply that the Messiah and Jesus are more than people say or think is to urge us to listen and follow not only this command, but the one who embodied it best through a life and a death that are sacrificial and transforming, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. Loving God with our whole heart, soul, and mind and our neighbor as we love ourselves hinges on who we believe is calling us into divine and human relationships.
What is it then to love God whole-heartedly? What is it to be seized by this love in response to one’s neighbor? It is to be in an all-consuming relationship with the source of all being, all of creation, all of redemption. If that weren’t enough, given how these commands are linked it is clear that we cannot love God faithfully and exclude anyone or anything from our love, including our enemies. All limits to neighborly love are taken away. Really to love God is to offer ourselves to God and to others in ways that transcend any privileges we may have in order to embrace one another. This love is the commitment of a life time and it is our life’s work. As Christians, as followers of Jesus Christ we are to commit ourselves to embodying this love of God and neighbor as he did.
This is where I meet this command anew with my own, really? Like the Thessalonians to whom Paul wrote, we too live in an era of wandering prophets, philosophers, economists, politicians, and entrepreneurs who bring us easy solutions to our woes and are so happy to take our money and run. We live in a time of anxious and angry public conversation in every realm imaginable, and that is a real inhibition to being a disciple of God’s love. It is such a temptation to turn our genuine vulnerabilities and suffering into bitterness and despair that are much easier to nurse and grow than is our capacity to love and serve God and one another. The injustice or unfairness that we experience does not remove this call to love God and neighbor. When Jesus offers this command to love God and neighbor, when he enters these contentious conversations first with the Sadducees, the Herodians, and then the Pharisees he is only days away from his own execution, and on the threshold of his own death Jesus asserts again and again, as our preacher last week stated so clearly, we belong to God. If we belong to God there is no avoiding this call to be holy, to love as God loves.
What makes this sacred call a gift and truly good news is that, quite simply, holiness of life comes not from within me, or within us, but from the holiness of a compassionate and loving God who loves us, who sent the Son to live and die as one of us long before we ever get near being just, or holy, or good, or loving. What makes this sacred call a gift is that entrusted to us is a responsibility not to do something impossible or even great, but, as another colleague reminded me, to do something small. This is perhaps best summarized in these words from a Liturgy of Life. We are to: “read and interpret those sacred stories of our community, so that they speak a word to people today; to remember and practice those rituals and rites of meaning that in their poetry address humanity at the level where change operates; to foster in community through word and sacrament that encounter with truth which will set women and men free to minister as the body of Christ and the people of God.”
We are created out of love. We are intended to be loving people. God has acted decisively for us and seeks to act decisively through us for the love of the world. This command is always with us, offered by God who loves us first. Much as I miss being in the Cathedral, we do not need a building to inhabit to live up to this great commandment. Instead we must be God’s people, beloved of God, who inhabit and live this command to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. God’s singular work in the world is not a résumé of mighty acts. God’s work is in loving the world so profoundly that being in relationship with it is the divine agenda. Love is all God wants. Love is all we need to give God and our neighbor, really. Amen.