Sunday, 26 October 2014

The most important thing a human being can do

Jesus is nearing the cross and has entered Jerusalem in triumph on a donkey as the crowds cheered (21:1-11). He then prophetically attacks the temple administration as he overturns the money-changers’ tables (21:12-17). Then Jesus is confronted by a series of public confrontations and those hostile to Jesus ask him question after question to try to trip him up and expose him as a fraud, or get him in trouble with the authorities. So they come at him with the major controversies of the day- Is it right for faithful Jews to pay taxes to the oppressive occupying Roman forces? Is there an afterlife as the Pharisees believe, or is there none as the Sadducees believe?
They test him with yet another question. A Pharisee expert in the Law asks, "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" There are 613 commandments of the Old Testament. 248 positive “thou shalts” and 365 prohibitive “thou shalt nots”. The question is really about the heart of the commandments. What is the law all about?
Jesus answers, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But Jesus doesn’t leave it with just the one greatest commandment, he adds the second greatest commandment as well- “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus gives the greatest and the second greatest commandment, but then to show how foundational these two commandments are he says “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets". He essentially says that these two greatest commandments are so important that if you remove them the entire laws falls apart. Those two commands are like the trunk of a tree that hold all the branches that are the rest of the laws.  If the trunk of the tree is removed there is nothing to hold the branches up.  Or think of it another way, Those two commands are like a closet rod and all the rest of the laws hang on that rod like shirts on clothes hangers. If the closet rod fell all the clothes fall too. Or, there’s another way to think of it, these two laws are like hinges on a door. Remove the hinges and the door is useless.   So loving God and loving your neighbour aren’t just important commands, without those two laws the rest of the laws are pointless. Love is Jesus’ way of understanding the Old Testament. If you read something in the Old Testament and you don’t see love you haven’t really understood it yet.
The law is about orienting your life towards God. The law isn’t really about being obedient to commands. The law is about a way of life that puts your life in line with God. Jesus says that way of life is really about love.  
The question becomes what is this love that Jesus is talking about? I love my wife. I love my children. I love chocolate. I love sleeping in. I love watching movies. I love the movie Princess Bride. The main character Wesley seems to be dead when they bring him to a kind of miracle doctor named Miracle Max. The doctor declares him “mostly dead” and therefore “slightly alive”. When Miracle Max fills Wesley’s lungs with air and asks him why he is still hanging on to life, Wesley wheezes “true love”. And Miracle Max responds “true love is the greatest thing in the world”.  Is this the kind of Love Jesus is talking about? If we want to really understand the Law we need to look to love. And, if we want to understand love, we need to look to Jesus. Jesus expresses the true depths of love.      
Our society uses the word “love” in all kinds of ways, but when we think of love in terms of Biblical love we often think of being “nice”. But, there are times when being nice is not being loving. If you live with someone who is addicted to drugs, being nice will allow them to continue on with their addiction without being confronted about it.  Niceness avoids conflict.  Love is willing to confront for the long term good of the person being confronted. Love is willing to confront the addict in the hopes that the person will find freedom from their addiction. The Theologian Stanley Hauerwas says, “This love can be harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to be forced to know ourselves truly”.[1] Real love is difficult and hard. If we want to understand real love we look to Jesus. When Jesus confronts the Pharisees- that is what love looks like. Jesus turning over the money changers tables is love. Jesus teaching and healing is about love. When we look at Jesus on the cross, we see love.

Now I’d like to look at these two commands that Jesus says are the greatest. We should remember too, that Jesus says they are first and second- they are not equal. One is better than the other.  And it is important also to remember that Jesus doesn’t just say “love” in general is the key to the Law. He says first of all, primarily, foundationally, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the most important command in the Law. Essentially this is the most important thing a human being can do. If you were to imagine which Law is more important, “loving God…” or “do not murder”, Jesus tells us that “loving God” is the more important command to follow. Of course, loving God would also mean not murdering, but that is what it means for the laws to hang upon that greatest command to love God. St. Augustine thought this command to love God was so central and so foundational that he said, "Love God and do whatever you please".[2]
Jesus’ response to the question, “what is the greatest commandment?” is actually quite traditional. He refers to the Shema which has been said daily by faithful Jewish people for thousands of years. It is from Deuteronomy 6:5 and is as close to a creed as exists in Judaism.
So what does it mean to love God? Jesuit author, James Skehan says to love God is to be, “seized so completely by the love of God that all the desires of my heart and all the actions, affections, thoughts and decisions which flow from them are directed to God”.[3]  It is to live with a life effected by God’s reality in every area of our life. Our thoughts, our habits, our family, our money, our talents, our work, etc. All of it is ultimately directed to God. God is not a hobby we tag onto our life and our life would be pretty much the same with or without our belief in God. The kind of love Jesus is talking about places God central in our life, so that our life is oriented around God.

Jesus says the second most important command is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This response is also somewhat traditional. There was a famous Rabbi (Hillel 40BC- 10AD) from around the time Jesus was born who was asked to recite the whole law standing on one foot. He replied, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary”. It is negative in that he says “do not do”, whereas Jesus’ command is a positive act to “love”. This second greatest command is actually Jesus quoting from scripture- Leviticus 19:18.
It is interesting that Jesus is asked for the greatest command, but instead he gives the top two. It suggests that there is some kind of link between them. You cannot love God and not love what God loves. If you deeply and truly love God with your whole being you will love even enemies … because God loves them. Even if it comes at great cost to yourself. Even if it means death on a cross.  
We read about this connection between the love of God and the love of others in John’s first letter. In 1 John 4:7 we read, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. … God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. …20 Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” (1 Jn 4:7-8, 16, 20-21)
Loving our neighbours isn’t about having warm feelings towards them. James 2:14-16 says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,  and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” So love is more than nice feelings. It includes action. Really this is what we are hoping the Reach Campaign will be about. If we love God then we will orient our lives around God and God’s priorities. That means we will take God’s mission seriously. What does loving our neighbour look like in our parish? What does loving the children in our parish look like? It isn’t just having warm nice feelings towards children. I would say among other things it means providing resources to them that they can be brought up to be disciples of Jesus. What does it mean to love the suffering in our parish and surrounding community? Among other things that love looks like providing a team of trained pastoral care givers. What does it mean to love the Aboriginal people in our diocese who have experienced so much cultural destruction? Among other things I think it means freeing people like Travis Enright to build bridges and to facilitate reconciliation between our communities.  Ultimately I do think that the Reach campaign is a good example of what it means to love God and our neighbour beyond having nice feelings.
Love has action connected to it. If we love someone we will make decisions according to that love. When we marry someone we bind ourselves to that person and suddenly we can’t make decisions while ignoring the thoughts and desires of the other person. Our love for God and our neighbour is no less a demanding love. Just as we would never think about a major decision without consulting our spouse (if we are married), so we also will never make decisions without consulting God or considering our neighbour God loves so much. Really God is only asking us to reflect God’s love to us, which is really more than we can understand. That love looks like Jesus on the cross holding nothing back and being willing to give it all to show the extent of his love for us.      

[1] Commentary on Matthew,  192
[2] Tractatus VII, 8
[3] Place me with your son: Ignatian Spirituality in everyday life

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