1 Kings 17:8-16 and Mark 12:38-44
"’You shall love the Lord your God with all your 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 neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
We have all heard this verse, haven't we? We've learned it in Sunday School and in vacation bible school and heard sermon after sermon on this subject. Love God and love others. We've heard it so much that I think it has started to become a kind of white noise. Yes, I should love God with everything and love my neighbor. Got it. What else is there?
Well, there’s lots more, but this verse deserves another look. There is a reason we have heard it so many times: it really is that important. Let us try to look at it with fresh eyes this morning.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. That's how Jesus answers this trick question from the Pharisees. He is quoting the Shema here, the passage every good Jew recites by heart. Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and strength. But that isn't what he says, is it? Jesus misquotes this famous passage deliberately. Instead of strength, Jesus tells us to love God with our minds.
As a Presbyterian, I love this part. Jesus tells us that we love God by thinking. By questioning. By striving to study our scripture and God's role in the world and our lives. Far from being called to check our brains at the doors of the church, Jesus calls us to think about our faith. Loving God requires use of our brains as much as our hearts.
This second commandment is also a quote from scripture. Leviticus 19:18 says: "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." Leviticus is probably one of the least read books of the Bible, full of obscure laws and statutes. Yet this passage is one of the most often referred to passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
Now let's look at the order Jesus placed the commandments here. Love God first. And then we are called to love our neighbors. He calls both essential, but the order is important when we are trying to follow the commandments. Because some other people only become lovable when we love God. After all, we don't like everyone we meet. And we're not going to. But all people are made in the image of God and it because of this that they can be lovable. When we love God, we strive to love all of God's children.
Yet this love isn't the kind of love that you feel deep in your chest. It isn't the rush of excitement of a new relationship, or the comfort of years spent with another. It isn't the affection of friendship. This kind of love Jesus calls us to here isn't a feeling at all. It is an action.
Jesus is talking about agape, which a love that is marked not by warm feelings but by rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. A decision to treat another as though they were as important as ourselves. By this definition, we don't have to like someone to love them. Which is good, because there will always be people in the world that we don't like. People that we don't get along with. We don't have to like them. We just have to love them.
Jesus isn't calling us to pretend to have feelings we don't. Jesus is calling us to treat everyone else as though they matter as much as we do. That they are equally loved as a child of God. Because they are. That person who cut in line at the grocery store. The friend who betrayed my trust. The guy who hit my car and drove away. All of them are just as beloved of God as I am. I don't have to like them, but I do have to treat them as well as I treat myself.
Some days this can mean no more or less than smiling at the people you see. There is a quote by Leo Buscaglia that I have always loved. "Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. It's overwhelming to consider the continuous opportunities there are to make our love felt." We don't have to have warm feelings about someone else to offer words of encouragement. To smile at the people we meet. To honestly listen to their troubles.
Yes, but what about those people we really dislike? It is really hard to try to smile at them let alone love them. What about the people who betrayed us? We are not about to offer them a word of encouragement. Sometimes the best we can do is not to look for vengeance or pursue grudges as Leviticus tells us. One of the best prayers I know for those times is "God, I am having real trouble loving this person right now. Please love them for me and I'll work on getting better at it." Then I follow it with striving to do the best I can with treating them well.
That being said, if you spend enough time striving to treat someone else as well as you treat yourself, you may find that your feelings towards them will change as well. When we decide to set our hearts in a direction, toward something or someone, and when we do the things that fulfill that commitment, our feelings often follow afterward.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote, "Do not waste your time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less."
But we shouldn't try to love everyone for us. Allison and Davies write this about this passage: "Jesus' words fulfill the law and the prophets; religious duties are to be performed not for human approval but grow out of the intimate relationship with the heavenly Father, out of love for and devoted service to him; and the neighbor is to be loved and treated as one loves and treats oneself." In other words, we don't love others to get them to like us. We don't love others for a warm and happy feeling, though both of these are nice when they happen. No, we are called to love others, because that is one of the ways we love God.
And let's not fool ourselves on the definition of neighbor. Our neighbors are everyone whose life intersects with our own. My neighbors are the people I see each day. The lives I hear about on the news. Those I have known and will know. Those whose lives are just like mine and those whose life I will never really understand. My friends as much as the people who don't like me. The people who agree with me and those who think I am dead wrong. All of these people are my neighbors and Jesus tells me to love them all.
Yes, in many ways, this is a very simple commandment. Love God and love everyone else. But simple isn't easy. In fact, it is so difficult that none of us will get it right all the time. But that is the goal Jesus sets before us. If we can get this part right, then everything else will come into place. It would be easier if God just gave us a set of strict laws that would tell us exactly what to do in any given situation. But instead Jesus gives us these two and allows them to influence our every action. If we can strive to get them right, we will be on God's path.
"’You shall love the Lord your God with all your 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 neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." It really is a passage that bears repeating. It is a passage that deserves study and fresh eyes and our full attention
We are called to love. Go out and do so. Amen.