A lawyer in an attempt to trip Him up asked Him, "Teacher,
which commandment of the Law is the greatest?" Jesus said to him, "You
shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul
and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment and
the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
As I begin my homily this morning, I would spare you my temptation to
tell you a lawyer joke. Rather, I would have you think about this quotation
of Jesus to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Quotations
always have a built-in problem. Use them frequently and they can turn rather
stale. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." "A stitch in time
saves nine." "This Bud's for you." All of these quotations begin to empty
themselves of meaning after a while. We hear them so frequently they just
wash over us without any difference being made.
How often we hear the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor
as ourselves. It's at the beginning of almost every Eucharist that we celebrate,
isn't it? Love God above all else. Love your neighbor as yourself. What
does it really mean? How can we get our arms around what Jesus is really
trying to teach us this morning? To put some new life into an old quotation?
Perhaps what we should do is look at three different scenes. First,
Jesus surrounded by the Pharisees. The second scene, Jesus surrounded by
His disciples. And the third scene, Jesus surrounded by you and me.
First of all, let's take a look at Jesus surrounded by the Pharisees.
Jesus had just put down the Sadducees. That group of people did not believe
in the resurrection. He had just disposed of them and along came the Pharisees
who were very intent on keeping the letter of the law. One of them, in
order to test Him, would ask the question. You can imagine the scene is
like a politician being harassed by a group of reporters. They are throwing
out embarrassing questions, trying to trip him up. One of the lawyers asks
Jesus, "What is the greatest commandment of all?" The question wasn't as
simple as it seems because the Law, the Torah, for Israel contains 613
commandments. There were 248 do's and 365 don'ts. Jesus is supposed to
pick out the greatest commandment. But He very simply has His listeners
remember the words of Deuteronomy. To this day, these are words that are
sacred to every Jew. This is the Shima.
"Hear, 0 Israel. The Lord is our God. The Lord alone. Therefore you
shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul
and with all your strength. Take to heart these words which I enjoin on
you today. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad
whether you are busy or at rest. Bind them at your wrist as a sign and
let them be as a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts
of your houses and on your gates."
Today if you approach a Jewish home, you will usually see a little brass
carving right by the door that is touched as they enter. It is inscribed
with the words from Deuteronomy. The Pharisees used to take this so literally
that they had what were called phylacteries, little boxes with this verse
inscribed, rolled up and placed in the box on their foreheads, in front
of their eyes, so they would have the Law before their eyes always. They
took it quite literally.
When Jesus answered the lawyer's question with this statement, they
would all nod approval and then Jesus threw in something else that they
weren't ready for. "And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy
neighbor as thyself." Here He would quote from the book of Leviticus in
the 19th chapter, "Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow
countryman; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord." Why
this was so surprising is simply this: Jesus was equating the love of neighbor
with the love of God. "The second is like the first. You shall love the
neighbor as yourself." "Oh, that's a little different, they would say,
"Wait a minute. We're not sure about that one."
Remember another time one of the lawyers came right back and said, "And
who is my neighbor?" Jesus gave us the beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan.
For an Israelite, neighbor meant two groups of people. A neighbor was another
Israelite or a resident alien. Those people you had to love and care for
as yourself. I guess everyone else was fair game. The interesting thing
about all of this is that the law of love is here in the midst of all of
the various laws of the Torah; that Israel's love for God and God's love
for Israel, the relationship between God and His people, would be in terms
of a law of total love. Neighbor for the Israelite was another Israelite
or that alien who was resident in the country. Jesus expanded the notion
of neighbor to include all kinds of people. That despised Samaritan, that
idolatrous Gentile, that enemy, that was the neighbor. If you live these
two laws, Jesus is saying, you are doing God's will.
If we stopped at this point, we would say, "But it still doesn't really
put much flesh on this quotation." So we have to look at another situation.
Jesus is surrounded by His disciples. Did you ever notice that the question
is about the greatest commandment of the Law? Of the Jewish law? We are
not Jewish. Spiritually our heritage is Semite, of course, but we aren't
Jewish. We're Christian. What are we to do with this?
We have to see Jesus surrounded by His disciples. Where? At the Last
Supper, when He tells His disciples, "A new commandment I give you that
you love one another as I have loved you." Now not just love one another
as you love yourselves, but love one another as I have loved you." This
was the command. What's new here is the model that Jesus gives us of what
love is all about. He provides the model, His whole life is a model of
what that love is. From the very first moment of His conception in Mary's
womb, when He took on this flesh of ours, when He became a man and dwelt
among us, walked the dusty paths of Palestine, healed the sick, and raised
the dead and eventually, when He gave us that ultimate gift of His love,
His life on the cross. That was the example, the model that He would give
to His Church, to His disciples, to you and to me. "Greater love than this
hath no man, that He lay down His life for His friends." Or for his enemies.
We have to grasp this new commandment that Jesus gives us, that we would
love one another as He loves us, in the context of the Last Supper, in
which Jesus celebrated a covenant meal with His disciples. "The cup that
is poured out for you is the new covenant, the new testament, in My blood."
As they would receive the Eucharist at that Last Supper - they are involving
themselves in a covenant meal, an agreement between God and His people
made in a new way. They would keep His law to love another as He has shown
the way of love. This is the new and radical love that God gives us in
His only Son. Jesus revealed it to the point of His very death. In the
book of Jeremiah, what Jesus was speaking of was fulfilled. In the 31st
chapter, He says this:
The days are coming," says the Lord, "when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the
covenant I made with their fathers, the day I took them by the hand to
lead them forth from the land of Egypt, but this is the covenant which
I will make with the house of Israel after those days," says the Lord,
"I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts. I will
be their God and they shall be My people. No longer will they have need
to teach their friends and kinsmen how to know the Lord. All from the least
to the greatest shall know Me," says the Lord.
Jesus provides not only the model for this love, but He also empowers
us to love as well. He writes His law on our hearts.
Well, we have Jesus and the Pharisees and we have Jesus and the disciples.
How about Jesus surrounded by you and by me? What question would we ask
Him? We wouldn't ask Him, "What is the great commandment?" because we know
that. To love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We wouldn't ask
Him what our model is for loving. It's still Jesus. Maybe we could ask
Him, "How do we live the commandment of love now, in the third millennium?"
There really is no single answer for each and every one of us. It's different
for all of us. When St. Paul was knocked off his horse, his first question
to God is, "What shall I do, Lord? What shall I do?"
That's the question that you and I have to ask. How are we going to
love God if God is an abstraction; if God for us is the end product of
a syllogism? You can't love a syllogism. You love a person. This is where
it really becomes difficult because we have to love God, not in an abstraction,
but as a person.
How do we get to know God in order that we might love Him? The only
way that you can do that is in prayer, deep personal prayer. I don't mean
that we have all kinds of wild visions of who God is, but that we would
touch in an intimate way the person of our God because we have confronted
Him in good and solid personal prayer. That is something that is essential
to our lives. It isn't just about our knowing all about our faith. There
are all kinds of people who know more than you and I about this faith of
ours, but they don't know the person of God. They don't know the person
of Jesus Christ. They've never encountered Him in prayer. If you can't
love a syllogism, you must know how to love a person. And that person is
approachable only in prayer. That is how we would keep that first part
of the commandment to love God.
How about loving our neighbor as ourselves? We have the model, the example
in the person of Jesus. However, if there is no effort in making some kind
of connection with another person, then we really can't love. I remember
a few years ago in the Peanuts cartoon, Linus and Lucy were having a conversation
about loving neighbors. Lucy's statement was, "I love humanity. It's people
I can't stand!" It is easy for us to hide behind the abstraction of humanity
rather than to say, "I love this person as Jesus loves this person with
all the good points, but with all the faults and frailties and failings
of that person as well. That is how we love our neighbor as ourselves.
We have to be able to see that person in reality, not in abstraction. You
can't love God in the abstract. You can't love your neighbor in abstraction
How wise Jesus was in His response to the lawyer's question. "What is
the great commandment in the law ? When we hear it so frequently we have
to remember what all of the ramifications are in His answer. If we embrace
it, we embrace God Himself.
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Dunstanís Church and Fr. Sisterman.