Sunday, October 23, 2011
A Homely Take On The Great Commandment
There’s a story about a famous entertainer who was in a midwestern community, speaking about his conversion to Jesus Christ. He talked about the time before his conversion when he knew that God existed, but didn’t yet know God, in the sense of having a personal relationship. Two older men were sitting in the audience, one of whom was almost totally deaf. “What’s that young feller talkin’ about?”, he said to his neighbor. His friend answered: “Talkin’ ‘bout him and God.” “Well, what’s he sayin’?”, asks the first man. “Sayin’ how they’d howdy’d, but never shook”, came the reply.
How often haven’t you and I felt that we’ve “howdy’d” with God (or others), but never “shook”? It’s one thing to know about God. It’s an entirely different thing to know God, at least to the extent that a human being can.
In last Sunday’s Gospel, we saw the Pharisees and Herodians ganging up on Jesus with a sticky political question. Immediately following this, in fact, on the same day, the Sadducees try their hand at testing Jesus with an equally tricky question about the Levirate law regarding marriage. The Law provided that, if a man died childless, his brother would marry the wife to produce children for the deceased. The Sadducees’ question posed the possibility of seven brothers successively marrying the woman, being childless, then dying. “At the resurrection,” they asked, “which of the seven brothers will be her husband? They were all married to her.” The idea was to make belief in the resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees did not believe that the Torah taught, appear ridiculous. Matthew notes that Jesus’ response “silenced the Sadducees”, literally, in Greek, his wisdom “muzzled them...shut them up”.
In Matthew’s narrative today (22:34-46), the Pharisees are back at it with a question which goes to the very heart of the Law, the Torah, which constituted the framework for Hebrew living. One of the Pharisee legal experts asks: “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Discussions of this point were common, apparently, among the Jewish rabbis. There were, already in Jesus‘ time, some 613 prescriptions of the Law which people were required to observe: 248 positive requirements, and 365 prohibitions. Whichever one Jesus picked, the Pharisees reckoned, he would have to downgrade the importance of the others, and would thereby show himself to be inconsistent, if not actually blasphemous, about the Law.
Jesus’ responds with a brilliant summary of the Mosaic Law. He quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-9, called the Great Shema because of the opening word: “Hear/Listen, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This is very sacred to every Jew as the commandment which governs the people’s day-to-day responsibility to their God. It continues: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, (a reference to phylacteries) and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…” (a reference to mezuzas, which were affixed to observant Jews’ entrance-ways.
The second commandment which Jesus quotes is Leviticus 19:18, expressing one’s responsibility to other human beings: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
In quoting these two precepts, Jesus summarizes the essence of the Covenant, that intimate relationship which God formed with his people. The whole history of Israel’s relationship with God involves the conviction that, whatever else is required, two things most certainly are:
viz., total commitment to the Lord God, and regard for and care about the neighbor.
These two commandments, love of God and love of the neighbor, reveal the grounding, the foundation, the intention of the Law, which, for a faithful Jew, meant God’s will. To “keep the Law” meant doing what God wants, and what God wants is total dedication to Godself and a commitment to caring for the neighbor, whoever and wherever. We’d be misreading the Scriptures if we saw these two precepts as simply principles of personal ethics, though they are that too. Even more, these two precepts are to be the governing guidelines, the norms, both of the believing community and of society, over both of which God is sovereign.
For a Christian, to be a member of God’s people, to be in covenant with the Divine, is to be a member of the gathered community, the ekklesía, the ones “called forth” through Baptism in Jesus the Christ. The full reality of that means that we’ve been “converted”, “turned around and toward” not only God, but also the neighbor.
The Pharisees were experts in knowing the Law, in knowing and teaching about God, yet often neglected and ignored the people whom they taught. Jesus contends that truly knowing God necessarily includes regarding and caring for all our neighbors’ needs also. It’s a call to a habitual relationship of love. It means that you’ve not only “howdy’d” with God and one another, but that you’ve also most definitely “shook” with both too.
The meaning of the word “love” has unfortunately become cheapened through the centuries, in both Christian and secular circles, to the point where today it’s more often associated with a warm, fuzzy feeling. But love is far more than just “feeling good” about someone. The love of which Jesus speaks involves one’s will, one’s conscious choice. To love God means that you and I deliberately choose to dedicate our whole life to God in an attitude of awe and obedience, in a steady, consistent turning over of our whole life and conduct to God: in worship, in self-giving service, and in fulfilling our responsibilities to God in every respect.
But that kind of genuine love of God can exist only if, along with it, there’s also a sustained determination by each of us to act toward every fellow human being with God’s compassion, justice, caring, and good will. And that’s a hard saying for many of us.
Love doesn’t necessarily imply that we always react positively to people, or that we will like every person, or feel good about them. It does, however, mean that we’re determined to make the choice of at least acknowledging every person as he/she is, and are willing to feed, clothe,
house, care for, to desire justice, education, and a decent environment for that neighbor, and then to act on this the very best that one is able. That’s not always convenient or easy for any of us, and we’ll be in constant tension, grappling with that precept probably our whole lives.
Yet, there’s no way around Jesus’ words: “You shall love the Lord your God...and...you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” At Baptism you and I committed ourselves to this, either personally or through our parents and godparents. Each time we renew the Baptismal Covenant throughout the year, we recommit ourselves to it. We solemnly affirm to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, loving the neighbor as we love ourselves, “with God’s help”. We agree to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
Baptism is the “howdy” between us and God, and between us and all others who come into our lives. But, as they say, “Words are cheap.” The true test of our commitment is the “shake”, the daily handshake we extend to God and to one another, sometimes generously, sometimes reluctantly and haltingly. It’s a sign of invitation to another person to become part of our life. Paul summarizes it so beautifully at the end of his message to the Thessalonians today (1 Thessalonians 2:8): “...we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves…”