“An Awesome Command”
October 25, 2020
Introduction to the texts:
Every Sunday, millions of Christians worldwide — Protestant and Catholic — read and preach from a shared schedule of biblical texts. Called a “lectionary,” it has been a tradition for generations. Today the lectionary is a three-year cycle of stories from the Old and New Testaments. Organized decades ago, the lectionary readings take us beyond the affinities of the preacher or lifting up scriptures to address the latest societal trend. There is however a timelessness to them and I am often amazed at how timely the lectionary readings are for life today.
Each Monday I read the lectionary texts for Sunday, a discipline I learned from a wise professor in my first year as a seminary student. Last Monday I was relieved to see these timely texts:
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 19:18
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus 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.” Matthew 22:34–40
Love your neighbor as yourself.
So concise. So simple. But is that really the case? Thanks for continuing to read what I pondered this week.
Have you noticed the increase in the use of the adjective “awesome”? It seems the word is used to describe many things that inspire or strike us as notable. From the new pizza on the menu at Papa Murphy’s, a series on Netflix or your friend’s latest haircut, awesome is the word to describe delight or pleasure.
So, I looked up the etymology of the world and learned it dates to the late 1600’s when it meant “inspiring awe or dread. “ American historians of language credit the increased use of awesome in our country to the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! There it was used by Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto to describe the “awesome” industrial potential of the United States.
Through overuse, it didn’t take long for the once rich and evocative word to deflate. Nowadays, few people hear the word “awesome” and feel the spine-tingling sense of wonder, apprehension, surprise, and astonishment the word is supposed to inspire. “Awesome” has become a bland word similar to “nice” or “cool.”
As a Christian, I fear that the same might be said of another word — one central to the faith, a word Jesus himself used to sum up the whole of his identity and mission in today’s reading. It is the word love. Jesus says all the laws and commandments rest on this single truth: love.
Today we continue exploring Matthew chapter 22 as the Pharisees ask Jesus yet another “test” question: “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” When asked which of the more than 600 hundred laws in the Bible was most important, Jesus was unwilling to do so and wove all the commands into a single Great Commandment.
Without hesitation, he said: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all our mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Love God. Love your neighbor. On these commandments hang everything else that matters in this world. Period.
We have a love hate relationship with commandments. They are laws. Our tendency as people of faith is to think about “the law” as simply a bunch of rules. Or a moral code. Or a laundry list of do’s and don’ts. Worse, we often view the law as something that is at best rather negative and at worse threatening because the law convicts us of our sin.
So, with that in mind, Jesus tells the religious leaders looking to bring charges against him that all the laws can be distilled into a single statement. Love God — Love neighbor. Jesus connects our relationships with God and each other into one by saying you cannot really be in right relationship with God without being in right relationship with your neighbor. In short, you cannot love God unless you love your neighbor.
Let me take a moment here to point out what Jesus does not say in response to the Pharisees’ question. Remember, at this point in the story, Jesus’s crucifixion is just days away. Death is literally breathing down his neck, and he is rapidly running out of opportunities for delivering his closing message. But when asked what matters most in a life of faith, Jesus does not say, “Believe the right things.” He does not say, “Maintain personal and doctrinal purity.” He does not say, “Worship like this or attend a church like that.” He does not even say, “Read your Bible,” or “Pray every day.” He says, “Love.” That’s it. All of Christianity distilled down to its essence so that maybe we will pause long enough to hear it. Love. Love God and love your neighbor.
Love. This is where, I fear, our overuse, misuse, and even abuse of the word “love” gets us into trouble. We claim to “love” many things. We “love” our favorite celebrities, foo-foo drinks, movies, music, and television shows. We “love” going on vacation, or reading a well-crafted novel, or fishing, biking, running, or knitting. We “love” chocolate or bacon or chicken tikka masala.
In other words, shaped by our personal tastes, interests and hobbies, we tend to think of love as a spontaneous and free-flowing feeling that arises out of our own enjoyment and affinity. We do not think of love as discipline, as practice, as exercise, and effort. We fall in love. We talk and think about love as if we have little power or agency in its presence.
But this is not how the Bible describes love. Jesus does not say, “I sure hope love happens to you.” He says, “Love is the greatest and first commandment.” Meaning, it is not a matter of personal affinity, feeling, or preference. It is not a matter of lucky accident. It is a matter of obedience to the one we call “Lord.”
I think we fail to obey and practice the greatest commandment because such love of God and neighbor requires trust, and we have learned to be suspicious. The love Jesus commands spills over margins and boundaries, and we feel safer and holier policing our borders. Love takes time, effort, discipline, and transformation, and we are likely too entrenched in our own aims to make this commandment foremost in our attitudes and actions.
What would it cost us to take Jesus’s version of love seriously? To practice and cultivate a depth of empathy and compassion for humanity? To train ourselves into a hunger for justice and love of all our neighbors so fierce and so urgent that we rearrange our attitudes and actions in order to pursue it?
Most of the time — we choose to be safe instead of loving. We want to keep our circle small and manageable. We choose the people we love based on our own affinities and preferences — not on Jesus’s all-inclusive commandments. Charitable actions are easy. But cultivating heart and soul? Preparing and pruning them to love? Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard and costly.
And yet this is the call. Which means that we have a God who first and foremost wants our love — not our fear, penitence, or piety. And we have a God who wants every one of God’s children to be loved. By us. Not shamed. Not punished. Not chastised. Not judged. But loved.
I do not think it is a coincidence or a mistake that Jesus inextricably links love of God with love of neighbor. Each reinforces, reinterprets, and revives the other. We cannot love God in a way that does not touch the dirt and depth of this world. Our love is meant to be robust and muscular, hands-on, and intimate.
Martin Luther wrote: “Christian(s) …do not live in themselves, but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith they are caught up beyond themselves into God; likewise, through love they fall down beneath themselves into the neighbor — remaining nevertheless always in God and God’s love.”
We cannot love ourselves or our neighbors in any meaningful, sustainable way if that love is not sourced and replenished in an abiding love for God. Only God’s love is inexhaustible; if we cut ourselves off from the flow of God’s compassion, we will quickly run dry. In other words, the motion of our hearts must be cyclical — love of God making possible and deepening our love of neighbor, and love of neighbor putting flesh and bones on our love for God.
The love Jesus commands is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Such love is something we do.
So, what does it look like? Simple. It looks like Jesus. We love when we follow in the footsteps of the one who stood in the presence of his accusers and enemies and declared love the be-all and end-all. The call is to weep with those who weep. To laugh with those who laugh. To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth. The call is to guide each other home.
That this week’s lectionary readings lead us back to these simple truths — love God and love neighbor — I think is a timely gift. It is awesome. These words of the divine have sounded forth for millennia — through political crises, times of violence, pandemics, and suffering, and many a dark winter. And they have guided humankind toward justice, peace, and healing, shining their bright light in the worst of times.
What could be more relevant to the living of these days, to getting through the pandemic, our elections, and for facing our anxieties, than the greatest commandment? Sometimes the simplest thing is the most needed thing. So dear readers, I pray you have a week brimming with love for God and neighbor, so that:
When you listen to the news, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
When you vote, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
When you don your mask, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
When you cannot catch your breath, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
Whatever you do, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
This week I came across a blessing from “A Black Rock Prayer Book” and in these challenging and complicated times, I share it so that you might be embraced by and inspired to extend the awesome love of God we know in Jesus…
The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor.
May your hands be so blessed that everything you touch is a sacrament.
Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.
May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.
And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire,
that your love, your love,
And may the blessing of the God who created you,
and sustains you,
be with you now and always.
 The Freedom of a Christian, 1520: The Annotated Luther Study Edition by Timothy Wengert (Fortress Press, 2016).