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Oct 29, 2017

Love God, Love Neighbor

Love God, Love Neighbor

Passage: Matthew 22:34-46

Speaker: Father Will Lowry

Series: All

Category: All

“Hey Jesus! We have just one more question for you.”

They’ve been at it for a while, haven’t they?

In Matthew's telling of the story on what would become Tuesday of Holy Week, Jesus was involved in a long series of disputations with Sadducees, lawyers, chief priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, and their disciples - and this is the discourse we have been working through for the past month or so.

But this confrontation is the end of it.

"Which commandment in the law is greatest?" Jesus is asked.

For Him to answer wisely will be a confirmation of his teaching authority. It seems that after a long day of verbal battle, even the Pharisees begin to lose steam and wonder whether their efforts had been worthwhile. 

Jesus' answer is classic. Loving God is the first thing, the most important thing. But, it comes with a contingent: to love God means that you also love God's people. (The ancient rabbis put it in similar terms: "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law.”) 

What more can be said after this? I mean really? What else can we say? Can we debate what love is? Can we restrict whom we give love to?

Silenced, the Pharisees finally withdraw from the fight. On the next day, they hatch the plan that will remove this trouble-making prophet and permanently silence him.

There is perhaps a key problem in interpreting this double commandment for our time, and it is that we lose sight of the biblical meaning of love (as we do many of our biblical words).

Our culture has equated love with intense emotion. To love is a stronger response than to like. And, both are measures of a passive response to something outside of us.

We love chocolate: We cannot help ourselves. We love a movie: It entertains or moves us. We love our spouse, or our children, or a boyfriend or girlfriend: They make us happy, they complete us.

But, biblical love is not passive and it is not strictly emotional. In the Old Testament, there are references to many kinds of love, but the love referred to here by Jesus is the love of Deuteronomy 6:5, the love of Yahweh. This love is far from passive. It is the active response of the faithful person to the love of God. 

God's love is also active. We are told that God chooses to love Israel above all nations and to bring his love to many through this chosen people. We are also told that God loves each of us as a part of His creation. To love God with all one's heart, and soul, and mind, is to choose to respond to God as God loves us.

In the New Testament, the principle word used for love is Agape. As used in the gospels, Agape is a sense of showing how God cares for God's creatures and creation. It can also be understood as loving-kindness. It is not a passive emotion, but an active mercy. It is marked by patience and generosity, both acts generated by the One who loves. In short, loving is a choice, as much, or more perhaps, than it is a feeling.

To love God with all our heart, mind, and soul seems nearly impossible when we think of love as an emotion. How does one conjure up feelings for something as remote, mysterious, and disembodied as the concept of God?

We cannot look into God's eyes, wrap our arms around the Spirit, or even see the face of Jesus.

If we could, that might evoke in us a profound feeling of love. We might fall in love with Jesus' beauty and grace if we could know him as Mary and Martha did. But, we are commanded to love an intangible God.

To be sure, there is a sort of failure on our part in being able to feel a deep, abiding affection for a God who often seems distant and unknown. A God that we cannot put our arms around or gaze upon. Nonetheless, we are taught and know that it is our duty as Christians to love God.

Likewise, loving our neighbor is difficult and, let’s face it, we often have a hard time loving ourselves. If love is merely our passive response to the person next to us, we are likely to be more often repulsed than moved to love. How can one legitimately look into the face of an enemy and feel unqualified love? It is nearly impossible.

But, God’s love is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. God’s love is something we do - because God did. God created out of love - for us.

God’s love is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both generous and continuous. Here is the good news for us all.

To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward ourselves - but, as I said, that is sometimes hard for us, too. So maybe then we should say to love neighbor is to treat them as we do our best views and attitudes about ourselves and those close to us, too. The idea is that we treat the stranger as well as we treat those that we love emotionally.

When the action to each is equal, the love to each is equal. This is in some ways counter to what we expect and what we often do. We are close to those we are close to for a reason and we want to let them know this by how we treat them.

This action of doing the same for everyone, neighbor, stranger, self, family, is somewhat foreign to us, yet it is absolutely in keeping with what the commandment requires.

This means that, to those with whom we are intimate, to those we do not know, to those who may be dirty or repugnant, and even to those who harm us, we can act according to the law of love. We can be merciful and gracious. To love the neighbor as ourselves is to make a conscious choice and act upon it. 

Now, what about love of God? Again, as God loves Israel and us ALL and offers forgiveness at every offense, so we can choose God and serve him in every way. We can love with our heart; through generosity to God's people.

We can love with our soul; by worshiping God and praying for our neighbors and ourselves.

And we can love with our minds; studying God's Word and letting it correct us, enlighten us, and send us out in loving action to the world. 

When we love God's people, we are always, and at the same time loving God. They are inseparable.

It may sound simplistic, perhaps because it is. And I think that’s what Jesus was saying here. If we do these two commandments - love God and love neighbor - every thing else will fall into place. If we focus on these two - our hearts and minds and actions will be where they should be. All of the other stuff will follow suit.