When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “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.”
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
What a great question. The bible is full of teachings, so many in fact that a number of passages contradict. It details the history of God with God’s people from the beginning of creation, through the patriarchs, politicians, and prophets. The law is complex and detailed at times with provisions for how to treat one another, and behave faithfully. Are we to live by all of the commandments equally or is there one that stands alone? “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, the one that stands alone as a beacon under which all the other laws pale in comparison. The lawyer is looking for a solitary answer, yet Jesus refuses to name only one; for Christ the love of God and neighbor are inseparable.
Jesus said to the lawyer, “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.”
What I want to know is this: What does it actually mean to love God and neighbor?
A number of years ago I was flying back from Guatemala after a week-long mission trip when I had one of the strangest encounters with love. In order to save money the church had purchased tickets from all over the aircraft and none of us were sitting together. Frankly, after a week of building stoves in the remote highlands of Guatemala I was perfectly fine sitting away from everyone; we smelled, we were irritable, and we were tired. When I boarded the plane all I could think about was the thrill of falling asleep and waking up back at home. My seat was located toward the front of the coach section on the left side, the middle of three seats. I arrived before my seat-mates, and when it was clear that they were a married couple, with me in the middle, I offered to move to the aisle so that they could sit next to one another. Big mistake.
Don’t get me wrong, they were remarkably kind and in good spirits. They had been vacationing together in Guatemala at a resort and were full of joy and happiness. I think they were in their early sixties, and though they had been probably married for a few decades, they looked like the trip had helped them to fall in love all over again.
From what I remember our conversation was pleasant, they told me about their resort, I told them about the stoves we built, they talked about the exquisite food, I told them about my Peanut-Butter and Jelly sandwiches. They asked me about my calling to ministry, and I asked them about their family. Without a doubt the funniest moment occurred when the steward came by and asked what we would like to drink; I was prepared to ask for a ginger ale but they insisted on purchasing me a glass of wine. When I told them that I was not yet old enough to drink alcoholic beverages they giggled and and exclaimed, “well sweetie, we won’t tell anyone,” right in front of the steward. Needless to say: I did not have a glass of wine.
Anyway, when the inflight movie started up on the headsets in front of us, I was dismayed to discover that the entire plane would be watching the romantic comedy “P.S. I Love You.” Now even if you’ve never heard of the movie, thats fine, suffice it to say that it is a romantic comedy with apathetic acting and a very limited narrative; within the first five minutes you know exactly how the movie will end. I decided to rest my eyes and catch some Zs but the couple next to me were hooked. With their headphones plunged deep into their ear canals they kept asking each other questions out loud, “Wait was he her husband?!” “Oh poor thing, what will she do now?!” “Do you think he’s right for her?!” Try as I might, I was unable to fall asleep. When the movie finally ended I muttered a quick prayer to God, thanking him for delivering me from the captivity of the couple sitting next to me, but that’s when the kissing began.
I’m not talking about your simple peck on the lips of affection, but full-on “sitting in the back seat of a car at a drive in movie” kind of kissing. All I can remember is forcing myself as far away as possible in my seat in order to clear myself from being hit by a wayward arm or leg. It was awful. I tried listening to music, I tried reading from a book, but there was nothing that could distract me from the love fest happening to my left. Suddenly however the husband stopped kissing his wife, pulled her away from his face and said with completely sincerity, “PS I Love You honey” and they commenced kissing to an even higher degree.
How are we supposed to love God and neighbor? Are we called to be filled with the Romantic-Comedy-kiss-your-spouse-on-an-airplane kind of love?
Love, in my opinion, is one of the most over-used and underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. We teach our children to be careful with their hearts and affection unless they are in love. We wait to value a romantic relationship as something with a future only when we love and feel loved by the other. Even in our preschool I witness our children hugging one another and talking about love as if it is a prerequisite for friendship.
In the church, sadly, the call to love God and neighbor has become so routined in Christianity that we have become numb to it, or only view it superficially. When we hear that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves, we don’t ask what it means to love, we just want to know who are neighbors are supposed to be!
In a time when the word “love” is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the fundamental component of biblical love is not affection, but commitment. Warm feelings of love and gratitude may fill our souls as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not a warm and fuzzy feeling that Christ demands of us. Instead, love for God and neighbor is a stubborn and unwavering commitment. We do not have to feel affection for our neighbor, nor for God; to love our neighbors is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.
It is true that God loves us in an affectionate and sweet way. He has called us by name and breathed life into us. But most of God’s love for us can be summarized as putting up with us in spite of all our faults and shortcomings. God has stayed with us when we no longer deserved his presence.
Pre-marital counseling is a privilege in my profession. I must admit that in the beginning I was afraid of pre-martial counseling sessions, but now I really enjoy them. I used sit with couples without having been married myself, but now with 6 months of married life experience, I am an expert! There is something indescribably precious about getting to meet with a couple before their wedding to talk about the deep realities of life-long commitment. When we gather together, it is a time of holiness and vulnerability that, I hope, will help them in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.
I also greatly enjoy those counseling sessions because I get to ask questions that would otherwise be completely inappropriate in any other circumstance. If I’m feeling particularly gung-ho I begin with the zinger: “tell me about your last fight.” Couples upon stare back at me in disbelief, or claim that they have never fought. Or I begin with a standard question turned upside down: “Why in the world do you want to get married in the church?” I inform them that we could get in the car and drive down to the courthouse and they could be married that afternoon; it would be easier and cheaper. So what is it that makes you want to get married in a church?
All of the questions I ask are aimed at trying to get them to start thinking about life beyond love. Because when I ask why they want to get married, I almost always hear “because I love her” or “because I love him.”
Love is nice, but love is not enough.
At least not the kind of love that we have been habituated into through Hallmark, Romantic-Comedies, and Trashy Novels. Love, to us, often has more to do with lust and affection than it does with commitment and patience.
Love is not enough because she is not going to look that good in ten years, and nor will he. Whatever physical love you feel for each other, it will change. You think you know each other? You think that love is enough? Just wait till you wake up next to them every morning for an entire year, or he starts snoring every night, or she forgets what you asked her to do week after week.
Are we supposed to love God and neighbor the way we are called to love our spouse? Yes, but it is a type of love that we often lose sight of. It is not the way the world tells us to love, but a love that we learn from God.
For centuries Israel disobeyed the God who brought them out of Egypt, the God of their ancestors, yet God’s love remained steadfast. For centuries the church has disobeyed the Word of the Lord and let sinfulness run rampant. When we act on behalf of the Lord for our own selfish purposes, when we make a mockery of this beautiful thing called the church, when we refuse to go to God in our prayers, we neglect to love the God who loves us in spite of what we do. God has put up with people like you and me for centuries, he has be stubbornly present with us, and thats what love is all about.
Christ calls us to be stubbornly loving with our neighbor, who, by the way, is everyone, with unwavering commitment. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Catholics, and even Baptists. Blacks, Whites, Heterosexuals, Homosexuals, the rich, the poor, the strong, the weak, the elderly, and the youthful. Loving the neighbor must teach us how to love God. Jesus has radically pushed us into a way of being where we are told to love all our neighbors, even our enemies, and we can only do so when we imitate the kind of love that God has for us.
Someone this week put it this way: It is often easier to love someone than to like them.
Truly to love God is to love the neighbor; truly to love the neighbor is to love God.
You might not like what God is doing in your life right now, you might want to cry out with clenched fists in anger about God’s presence, you might feel that God has abandoned you. You don’t have to like God to love God.
You might feel like the people closest to you have ignored your needs and have stopped listening to you, you might feel like the outcasts in our community don’t deserve any of your time or energy, you might feel like your neighbor has done something to you that is beyond forgiveness. You don’t have to like your neighbor, to love your neighbor.
It sure is a strange thing to follow Christ. How bizarre is it that he has turned the world upside down and called to the first to be last and the last to be first? How weird is it that he has shattered the world’s vision to be replaced with God’s imagination?
My friends, let us be stubborn with our patience, unwavering with our commitment, and radical with our love toward God and neighbor.