Here come the Pharisees again, taking on Jesus one more time, with another question. As usual, they don’t really want to know the answer; they just want to get Jesus to trip himself up. Today, they challenge Jesus to tell them which of the commandments is the greatest. This was, in fact, a considerable challenge because although you and I are used to thinking of commandments as being 10 in number, the Pharisees counted 613 commandments. For each of the ones we are familiar with, there were dozens of others that were added to further the interpretation. The rabbis called this “putting a fence around the Torah”, in that the laws they enacted were put there to further protect the values enshrined in the original teachings.
That’s why the Pharisees’ question of Jesus was not so simple. How could anyone, even a great teacher like Jesus, penetrate to the core of the commandments and select the one that was the greatest? So, the Pharisees approached Jesus with their not-so-innocent question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (We can imagine the other Pharisees standing around, exchanging knowing glances, thinking to themselves, ‘Aha! Now we’ve got him!”)
Jesus gives them a simple answer that stuns them and leaves them speechless. It’s the last time in Matthew’s Gospel that they dare to challenge him in public; after today, a plot to have him arrested and crucified is devised and put into action.
Jesus reaches back into the ancient tradition, back into Exodus and Leviticus, and responds, “’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.”
So, there it is. We no longer have 613 commandments, not 10 commandments, but two—two core commandments that sum up and support everything that God has been trying to tell us from the beginning of time. It sounds so simple.
How easy it is to love God—with our whole being, all our heart, all our soul, all our mind. How simple is that?
In all humility and honesty, I can’t do that. Too many things get in the way of my commitment to God. When I pray, my mind sometimes wanders. When I make decisions about how to spend my money, I too easily put personal wishes ahead of the claims of God. When I choose how to spend my time, I find it easier to escape with a book or newspaper or film than to involve myself in connecting with my divine source. It’s difficult to put God first. I have so many choices, such a hectic life, and so little time and energy.
It’s easy to say, but so difficult to put into practice: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”
As if I didn’t have enough to think about, Jesus goes on to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Talk about impossible! It’s hard enough to love God, who is perfect; how can Jesus expect me to love my neighbor, who is imperfect and, let’s be frank, oftentimes just plain annoying.
The Russian author Dostoyevsky tells of a woman, who travels throughout Russia telling people about the love of God. She is genuinely captured by God’s love, she feels it burn within her, and so she takes on a mission to tell others about God. But she has one serious limitation: she cannot be in the same room with another person for very long without becoming annoyed and disgusted. They are always doing something that offends her: one woman has a shrill, ear-piercing laugh that drives her crazy; there is a man who slurps his soup, and she finds that intolerable; there is even a homeless man whose loud snoring makes her completely resentful. She wants to tell them all about Jesus, but she can’t get close to them: she can’t love them as they are. Dostoyevsky says this: “Although she loved God in general, she couldn’t stand human beings in particular.”
I know all too well what that’s about! I find it hard to love sometimes—to love God with an undivided heart, and to love others, their laughing, slurping, and snoring notwithstanding!
But, if I start putting expectations or conditions on those I would love, I miss the point of Jesus’ whole message. I can always find love enough for those who like me, or those who resemble me, those I know, those who meet my standards. I find easy access to love for those who are warm and affectionate with me, but I don’t want to have anything to do with those I dislike or don’t understand, or the worst ones of all: the ones who refuse to do things the way I do them.
But the word Jesus uses—agape—is about unconditional love. It’s love without limits, love without strings, it’s love for those the world and I see as unlovable. Left to our own resources, we cannot love like that. But we are not left to our own resources. God can love like that; God DOES love like that.
God loves with agape love—love for the unlovable, and love for those who find it hard to love others. God loves like that—unconditionally. God even loves me, despite my failure to love God and others in the way I myself am loved!
As we continue to read in Matthew, we discover the depth of God’s love. Jesus’ time on earth is drawing rapidly to an end. He will soon relinquish everything he holds dear in this life, submit to a mockery of a trial, unjust conviction and capital punishment. Why? Because Jesus knows something that we only glimpse on rare occasion: He knows that to surrender to the Reign of God, without fear of personal cost, is the only path to cocreating that Reign on earth. No, I do not believe that we can, of our own power, express love like that, but God dwells within us in grace and power. By the grace, the power and by the love that has been poured out upon us again and again, we are empowered to love God and love others. We didn’t earn it; we cannot earn it. But neither can we deny the awesome power of grace in our lives.
When I choose to live consciously, in the amazing and unstoppable love of God, when I discover how astounding it is that God loves even me, then I am strengthened and empowered to manifest the presence of the living Christ who dwells within me. I find the courage to share that love with others. It isn’t easy, but it gets easier the more I surrender to love.
In the story The Great Hunger, there is a character, a newcomer to a rather close-knit rural community. He doesn’t really want to become part of his new community, so he isolates himself as best he can. He fences his property, posts “No Trespassing” signs, and buys an attack dog that he keeps inside the fence to frighten would-be intruders.
One beautiful fall day the neighbor’s little girl crawled under the fence. She had seen the pretty dog and she wanted to pet him, but the angry dog did what he had been trained to do.
The community is outraged by the death of the little girl. They ostracize the man: no longer does anyone greet him on the street. Clerks and waitresses refuse to wait on him. In the spring, no one will even sell him seed to plant his fields. The man is left completely alone, destitute, with no way to provide for his own survival.
One day, in his despair, he looks out and notices someone planting seed in his field. He rushes out to see who it is, and is shocked to discover it is the little girl’s father. Amazed, he says, “Why are you, of all people, doing this?”
The grieving father replies, “I am doing this to keep God alive in me.”
In the final analysis, this is why we are called to love: to keep God alive in us, to keep God alive in this world that is suffering unspeakable pain. This is why Holy Redeemer parish exists. God loves us first, and calls us to simply release our ego, our limitations and fears to God’s loving care. The love we receive isn’t meant to be hoarded or reserved for a precious few. The hour is late, people everywhere need us, people right here in Fort Wayne need us. They need our attentive care, they need our ears and our hands and our hearts. Together, then, we answer the call to incarnate the Christ in our own time and place. We don’t need to worry about who it is we are called to love. God has already worked that out and those people will come into our lives precisely when they are supposed to, because everything is in Divine Order. The challenge of loving becomes easier, the burden of caring for others becomes lighter, when we release our fears and limitations, when we, finally, allow ourselves to accept the unconditional love of God.