October 26, 2014
20th Sunday after Pentecost
“The Law of Love”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Christopher West is a writer who wrote about the need to put Bible or theological statements into their proper context or framework. He said, “Once you understand the context, everything else falls into place and makes sense.”
So he wrote this little paragraph. A seashore is a better place than the street because you need lots of room. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Birds seldom get too close. If there are no snags it can be very peaceful. But if it breaks loose, you won't get another chance.
If you are a bit confused, or wondering if there is a hidden joke, hear it again, after I create the context and say the word, “kite.” A seashore is a better place than the street because you need lots of room. At first it is better to run than to walk. You may have to try several times. It takes some skill, but it is easy to learn. Even young children can enjoy it. Birds seldom get too close. If there are no snags it can be very peaceful. But if it breaks loose, you won't get another chance.
When it comes to understanding the Bible and how it pertains to us, I’m learning that providing the context or framework to a passage is huge. I think more harm than good has been done - in the name of Jesus - by cherry-picking verses and passages out of their context - not always, but a good many times. So before we get to this morning’s scripture passage, which is a lovely passage in and of itself, we would do well to take a step back for that larger picture and context.
According to Matthew’s version, Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, and after all the hulla-baloo, Jesus got down to some serious teaching. So we need to keep in the back of our mind that after his donkey ride, he went to the Temple to do some house cleaning, had his authority challenged, shared some parables, had to deal with the pesky Pharisees about taxes, and then tamped down the Sadducees and their attempts to trap Jesus into blasphemy. So we come to this morning’s passage. As Mary makes here way here, because this passage is more of a two parter, and we all need to see some of this glorious day, we will focus on just the first half of this morning’s scripture.
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Thank you, Mary. If you’ve spent any time in church at all, you’ve no doubt heard this passage a time or two. So maybe you do, maybe you don’t remember that loving “the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” comes from the book of Deuteronomy. And maybe you do, maybe you don’t remember that “loving your neighbor as your self” comes from the book of Leviticus.
If you think of the first commandment as the vertical, and the second commandment as the horizontal, you can get the impression of a cross, which makes that next sentence all the more poignant. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” The Law and the Prophets is a nickname for the Old Testament - and the history of the Hebrew people. Of all 613 commandments in the Old Testament, Jesus picked these two to be the most important.
We forget - or maybe didn’t know - that at one time, God said that men must not shave their beards with a razor. And at one time, God said we are not to tattoo the skin. God said - at one point in time - that we are not to eat fresh grapes, grape skins, or fresh raisins, non-kosher flying insects or non-kosher maggots. But apparently the kosher ones were a non-issue.
One of my seminary professors once explained that God gave us commandments so that we would know how to show God that we loved God. After all, what was the language mere humans were to use to express their gratitude to the very One who created and sustained them? So the commandments were given so that humans could say, “Hey God, I am so grateful and love you so much for all you have given me, I am going to give the shoulder, two cheeks and stomach of whatever animal to the priest/pastor (kosher, I’m sure.) On top of that, for all you have given us, we are not going to burn honey or yeast on the altar. Those are commandments.
So Jesus’ summary commandments were good and right, and most of us get that. But what do they really mean, and how do they allow us to express our gratitude to God for all we hold dear?
Writer John Trent tells of his time as a church camp counselor, especially the year when the main speaker was a guy named Bob Mitchell. Apparently Bob was “one of those guys” that controlled much of what went on around him, even to the point of when the meals would be served. So Bob was always talking to the camp cook.
The cook loved her work, but it was exhausting. She always looked tired. Whenever she talked to Bob, he gave her his chair for a moment's rest, while they discussed meal plans. Nobody noticed Bob doing this except one kid named Mark.
Mark hadn't come to camp to hear about Jesus. But when he saw Jesus' love lived out in that simple act of kindness by the camp speaker, he began to listen to Bob's talks. Later that week, Mark decided to become serious about following Christ. It wasn't because of the messages, Mark said, but because of the love he saw in Bob. "If that's what it means to be a Christian," Mark said, "I want to be one.” If we are followers of Jesus, we are called to follow not just the law of love but Christ’s loving example as well.
When we enter into those two great commandments, and get serious about them, we begin to see that what we do - or don’t do - is not about following rules, but about love. From the backside of that idea, we simply cannot obey all 613 commandments, because it can’t be done.
In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God instructs the Israelites to plunder their enemies. Later in Exodus and in Leviticus, God prohibits stealing, defrauding, or robbing a neighbor. Six Old Testament passages clearly prohibit killing. Four other passages give evidence of God ordering killings. Even with this passage today, as much as Matthew tells us we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, there is a passage in 1 Corinthians that says we are to put our neighbors ahead of ourselves. The life of faith and following Christ is far too complicated to be defined by a mere 613 commandments.
I read that in Western Colorado there is a road called the Million Dollar Highway. Chances are that tourists and even most of the people who live there probably assume it got its name because it was expensive to build. That's not correct—although it probably was expensive to build because it runs through very difficult terrain and at a high altitude. The real reason it's called the Million Dollar Highway is because waste material from the ore in gold mines was used as the bed for that highway, and not all the gold dust and nuggets were removed by the mining processes available at the time. So there is a partial roadbed of gold that is probably worth a lot more than a million dollars. It isn't the cost that gave it its name, but rather what is inside it.
What gives these two commandments their true value is from whom they are given: the God who is love.” What gives us our immense value is not just that God looks on each of us - and all God’s children - with love and care and concern - but that God enables us to help other see the love that is behind Jesus, the commandments, the gifts, the Holy Spirit, even God’s own self. The law of love is not a list for checking yes or no, but a principle that cannot be reversed, overturned or undone. For - not just the love, or the law, - but as bearers of such an essential backdrop to all of life, so should we all pray.
God of all our days and enlightenment and love, we thank you for not only the gifts that you give us in our day-to-day lives, but in the gifts of our abilities to love one another and you. Help us to embrace your law of love - not because it is a nice thing, but because it is the essential thing against which we experience the rest of our lives. Help us to be mindful that the love you give us to give away is not limited, but because it comes from you, is unending, and we don’t need to hoard it.