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Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Oct. 22, 2000
Fr. William Sisterman
St. Dunstan's Anglican Church, Minneapolis, MN 
Readings: I Corinthians 1:4-8 and Matthew 22:34-46
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 either. 

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.