Thursday, 23 October 2014

“The Law of Love: a sermon (Matthew 22: 34 – 46)

Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all you 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 neighbour as yourself.’”
The nineteenth century English poet John Keats concluded one of his greatest poems with these words:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” - that is all
ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
But, you know, perhaps it’s not quite as simple as that. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is a good thing to know. There are other things that are also good to know.  
Just to give two examples,
  • “Stop at red lights” is a good thing to know.   
  • “Know when to say please, thank you, and I’m sorry” is another good thing know.
To say that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” is “all . . . [we] need to know” is a great oversimplification.
But, you know, it’s human nature to try to oversimplify things. People often feel the need to bring a complicated reality down to a few easily-remembered rules. Nevertheless, 
  • life is complicated; 
  • reality is complicated; 
  • truth is complicated.
As Oscar Wilde reminded us: “The truth is never pure, and rarely simple.”
Many people use our gospel lesson as a way of oversimplifying our faith. Often, when the church is trying to grapple with a complicated and uncomfortable issue, we hear people (with the greatest sincerity and honesty) say something like this: “Do we really need to worry about these things. Aren’t we just suppose to love God and love our neighbour?“ (And usually the discussion pauses for a moment or two.) 
Part of the problem boils down to the meaning of love in our culture. The word “love” is often used in our culture to mean anything from (on one hand) one person’s highly emotional response to another person to (on the other hand) one person’s vague sense of good will to another. Often, when we use the word in religious contexts, we tend to think of this vague sense of good will. Using this view of love, do we want to boil the essence of religion down to a combination of:
  • a vague sense of good will toward our neighbour (however exclusively or inclusively we define the word “neighbour” - we’ll return to that later); and 
  • an even more vague sense of good will toward God.
In the Bible, love is not an emotional feeling. In the Bible, love is definitely not a vague sense of good will. Rather, love - in biblical terms - is always something active. Love is the active commitment to the well-being of the person or persons loved. The commitment is always put into action.
In our gospel lesson, when Jesus was asked this question by the Pharisee, it wasn’t a trick question. Jews had been asking each other the same question for centuries. “What is the core of the Torah; what is the heart of the law?” It was a good Jewish question. And Jesus gave the Pharisees a good Jewish answer. Jesus’ answer wasn’t all that different and revolutionary. Probably, the response of many of the Pharisees after Jesus’ answer was something like: “Well, that was a good answer. He annoys us in a lot of ways, but he gave a good, answer to our question: a good, mainstream Jewish answer.”
There were similar responses to the same questions. A famous example of one of these answers involved a rabbi named Hillel, who lived around the time of Jesus. Hillel was teaching some of his students when a gentile came into the room and offered Hillel a bet: If Hillel could teach the gentile the whole Torah - all of the law - while Hillel stood on one leg, the gentile would become a Jew. Hillel thought a moment, stood on one leg, and said:
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. 
That is the whole Torah.
The rest is commentary.
Go and study.
Jesus’ answer followed in the tradition of such responses. Jesus told the Pharisee: “You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”  
Love of God involves an active commitment to God, a commitment that involves the whole being. It’s not a vague feeling of good will.  
The part about loving God with “all your mind” is particularly important, particularly today. Lately, there’s been a lot of mindless religion in our society. Mindless religion can be very dangerous. Mindless religion can be found within any faith tradition. No faith is immune from it. The one common feature of mindless religion in all faith is its destructiveness. In loving God with our whole being, it’s important to include loving God with all our minds.
Jesus also told the Pharisee: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Love of neighbour involves an active commitment to the neighbour’s well-being, not just a vague feeling of good will. The important thing here is how inclusive a view we have of who is our neighbour. In Luke’s gospel, we also find this passage where Jesus speaks of the heart of the law as loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbour as ourselves. In Luke’s gospel, this passage leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan. We need to remember that, when Jesus calls us to love our neighbour, he gives us an incredibly inclusive definition of neighbour. Our neighbour is anyone who needs us at the moment.
As well, Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves. The “as ourselves” bit is also very important. Many religious people have not been taught to love themselves properly. Many have learned to think: “I’m a sinner; I’m a sinner; I’m worthless; I’m worthless;” without any real sense of self-worth as a child of God.  
Many Christian believers have taken the Christian teachings about our constant need for God’s grace to be a mandate for low self-esteem. This is a real problem, which has been noted both among pastoral counsellors in the churches and among the mental health profession in the broader community. It’s a problem both for men and women, but it’s often more severe among women. As Christians, we affirm that we are created by God in God’s image. God doesn’t make junk. You’re not junk.
Jesus challenged the people of his day - and he challenges us as well - to:
  • a loving commitment to following in God’s ways;
  • a loving commitment to the well-being of our neighbour (defined as inclusively as possible); and
  • a healthy self-esteem, knowing that we are made in the image of the loving God.
Jesus said, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all you heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ Ths is the greatest and first commandment, And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”

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