Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (St. Matthew 22:37-40).
We are confronted today by our Lord’s summary of the law. I say confronted because we would be wise not to reduce this familiar formula into a mere motivational quote or internet meme packaged and processed for our easy consumption. In our strange, inward turned world the internet has intensified my story becomes the most important one, and this whole Christ story becomes the dressing or green bean casserole around me: the turkey. This conception of ourselves as the star of the show, the main character in the drama of the earth (the lover and the loved) is wildly destructive, and sadly, one of the last unifying element of the disconnected, individualistic world mankind have been building for the last 300 or so years. It should be no surprise that we face a suicide and drug epidemic in this lonely world where Man is instructed to be his own best friend, lover, and god. And make no mistake, anytime we move Christ from being the love we desire, the identity which gives us meaning, and the known truth by which we judge all else, we make ourselves the lonely kings of an empty kingdom, and as Jesus says over and over again, there is only room for one kingdom in the new world to come. God is either the center of our life, the ultimate desire of our heart, or He is our enemy. It should be no surprise that so much pain and suffering and regret flow from a people who have made love their enemy.
It is that perspective we should carry with us as we witness our old friends the Pharisees interrogating Jesus in today’s gospel reading. We are not outsiders with popcorn watching a movie about some character named Jesus—mining His timeless truths to get us through another day, nor are we passive religious spectators hearing a lesson made stale by how many times we have told ourselves we are the good guys. Jesus is making a triumphant stand surrounded by the failed architecture of the human religious project: a temple completed by the bloody King Herod who murdered his own family members to preserve his puppet reign, and a religious leadership who preferred to sell themselves to the Roman Empire rather than fall down and worship the true dwelling place of God standing before them. Just as Jesus faced the barbed questions of Satan in the wilderness, Jesus faces the rebellious questions of humanity in the ill-stewarded wilderness of a temple made as wild as the garden Adam failed to keep holy. The Sadducees and the Pharisees are asking questions, but it is humanity that is on trial. The stakes could not be higher.
Right before our reading today, Jesus had just finished silencing the Sadducees, who tried to make Jesus look foolish by exposing His silly belief in the resurrection of the dead; after all, up to date 1st century people didn’t believe in such nonsense. Jesus, however, not only deftly defends the future resurrection of the dead, He establishes and insists that it is impossible to be part of the people of God, to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, without believing in the resurrection of the dead. Much, more could be said on this, but let’s move on to today’s controversy.
The Pharisees have brought a ringer to challenge Jesus in front of the disciples and crowds gathered in the temple to hear Him teach. This lawyer is an expert in the torah, the 613 commandments which make up the law, and his goal is to make Jesus say something that could be used in a blasphemy trial. The question: ‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ is a difficult one, but Jesus answers in a way which reveals so much about the relationship between Christians and the law. First, the familiar words of Jesus are not taken from folk wisdom or made up on the spot; no, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. After all, the whole Bible is the Word of God, and Jesus can freely use the previous revelations of the Godhead to clarify and instruct. Jesus is the great law giver, and St. Matthew is at pains to show Jesus establishing a mediated continuity between the Old Testament and the New: we see this in action when Jesus discusses sins like lust and anger in the Sermon on the Mount. There, He speaks as the authoritative author and interpreter of the law designed to moderate our sinfulness and reveal our utter need for a savior. It is worth noting that modern, revisionist theologians, and their loyal disciples, like to defend their affirming positions on disordered sexual relationships by referencing this verse and saying that they are just ‘loving their neighbor;’ however, these snake oil salesmen are only able to get away with this type of interpretive malfeasance because modern Americans can’t be bothered to read the Bible. Remember, Jesus is quoting from Leviticus, a book that is quite clear on the abominable nature of using our bodies outside of God’s design. You can’t get ‘love thy neighbor’ without that love being shaped and defined by the God who rules the pages of Leviticus and Matthew’s Gospel because a love detached from God becomes just one more declaration of the lonely king screaming edicts to himself.
Which brings us to the importance of the first and great commandment and the second that is like unto it. We see that the divine will for human existence is that we love. Now, of course, the object and animating force of our love matters, but it is a staggering and wonderful and amazing revelation that it isn’t power or violence or possessions or comfort that are to be the direction and focus of the well-lived life; no, we are set free from the crushing demands of a world that enslaves us by making these other aspects of human life supreme. Jesus, sitting among the men who will cheer and laugh at His torture and death, tells them that God wills that they love Him and their neighbor. How much are we to love God? Jesus commands that we love God with everything we have. There is no safe space from the demands of the Living God; there is no place to hide from His ever searching gaze just as there is no place to hide from His all encompassing love. As modern, 21st century Westerners, do we believe that? With all due respect to Baudelaire, the great lie the Devil told our forebears was that we could somehow buy God and own him or treat Him like a cause or a hobby or a club. No, a thousand times no, that cannot be how we love God with the entirety of our heart, soul, and mind. Our chief privilege and responsibility in life is the adoration of God, and from this privilege naturally flows the second commandment—to love our neighbor as ourselves—because it is in our neighbor that we have the ever present opportunity to love an immortal person made in the image and likeness of God. To paraphrase the Anglican author C. S. Lewis, next to the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion itself, our neighbor is the closest thing to God our senses will encounter. Or, as St. John tells us, ‘If anyone says, “I love God,”and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother’ (1 St. John 4:20-21). These two commandments are inseparable and an overemphasis on one or the other leads to disaster.
So, love God; love Man—two commandments—that doesn’t sound very hard, but of course, we should not deceive ourselves. When faced with these two commandments, we should not come away with any sense that we are doing a good job of keeping them; in fact, the more we hold our lives up against the piercing light of their beautiful simplicity, the more we begin to realize that far from loving God and loving our neighbor, we have much more often succumbed to the evergreen allure of loving ourselves. We hear it all the time, ‘You have to love yourself before you can love anyone else.’ People say this two-cent proverb like it was delivered to them on golden tablets, when in fact it is no more valuable than discarded advice from a fortune cookie, and if really taken to heart, a form of idolatry that replaces God as the center of our love and makes us the new god. And, we are cruel and demanding gods, for just as it is brutal and terrible for people to look for ultimate happiness in the arms of a human lover—who is just as screwed up and fallen as they are—it is evil and cruel to tell people that they will be happy if they could only find a way to love themselves—whatever that actually means. Our modern, therapeutic age transforms the Lord’s great commandment into, ‘Love yourself with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as long as it doesn’t interfere with loving yourself.’ Horrifically, in the closed circle of our love affair with ourselves, there is no way to break out and really love anyone else, and so all of our relationships simply become new ways to experience self-love rather than conduits through which we can experience the divine language of the universe by sharing in the love of the Godhead: a love for which the world was created, a love that transcends even death. Show me a love separated from God, and I will show you dead loved ones, faded memories, and keepsakes discarded or decayed. Without God, love can be beautiful, but it is always tragic. As the Pharisees stared down their creator, there was plenty of tragic love in their questions and hostility: it was simply the love of self, the idolatry of I. How often have we been right there with them?
But thankfully, we are not saved by our ability to keep this law. No, that is why we beg for mercy every Sunday when we repeat along with the justified publican, ‘Lord have mercy upon us; Christ have mercy upon us; Lord have mercy upon us.’ We are saved by the only man who ever actually lived out these commandments in their beauty and rigor. The life, ministry, trial, and death of Jesus Christ are the great moments in the history of human love; it is the only time that these commandments were ever perfectly lived out on the stage of human experience. All other attempts to love God and Man must be measured against the innocent Lamb of God allowing His creation to murder Him in our greatest act of self-loving idolatry. Again, there was plenty of tragic love in the hearts of the callous men and women yelling, ‘Crucify him, Crucify him,’ but it was the constricting self-love which makes men proud and cheerful sinners. When we recognize that this same self-love still resides in the darkened chambers of our hearts, we begin to realize the enormity of the Trinity’s salvation project; we begin to realize just how much we need the sacrificial love of Jesus to be our only template for true love; we begin to realize that we don’t just need something called ‘love’ in our lives; no, we need God to reach into our chests and pump our dead hearts back to life, so we can be even the faintest echoes of the reverberating triumph love won forever on the cross. And when those faint echoes come together to worship in this building and live every moment for Christ, our combined voices resound in the court of heaven and terrorize the pit of hell; our love makes the Evil One tremble and know that he has but a short time. So let us then love God and neighbor, and thank Christ every day for showing us that true love is always in the shape of the cross.