22nd Sunday After Pentecost
TEXTS: Matthew 22:34-46 and 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
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 neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
In other words, you are supposed to love God totally—without any division between heart and soul and mind; and love your neighbour the way you love yourself. Total love—total, undivided love—this is what Jesus calls us to.
It sounds good in theory, but it’s not so readily put into practice, is it? If you’re like me, you find it a lot easier to love in the abstract than to love in the concrete.
Yet, God calls us to love him totally—and out of that love, to love our neighbours as ourselves. The two commandments are bound into one—total love of God, and total love of neighbour—so that one becomes the measure of the other.
There is an old story about the fourth evangelist, Saint John. You may recall that John was the youngest of the twelve disciples; he also lived the longest—well into his nineties, in fact—and he was the only one of the original twelve to die a natural death. In his old age, John lived in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor (what we know today as Turkey). In his later years, unfortunately, he became feeble—not only in body, but also in mind. John’s ability to think and express himself became ever more limited, until finally he could say only a few words. This, however, did not matter to the Ephesian Christians, who held John in the highest esteem as the last surviving member of Jesus’ inner circle.
On Sundays, he would be carried into the midst of the congregation that had assembled for worship. The people would fall silent to hear his words. Then the old man would open his mouth; and this is what the aged disciple would say: My children, love one another. My children, love one another. My children, love one another.” Over and over again, just that: “My children, love one another.”
Jesus says that we should love God with everything we have—that our love needs to be shown in every part of our lives. We are to love God—and, in the end, love our neighbours—with heart, and mind, and soul: the heart, where passion lives within us; the mind, the thoughtful and rational part of us; the soul, the mystical, spiritual part of us. There should be no division inside of us, and no division outside of us—no division, in other words, between how we love God and how we love ourselves and our neighbours.
At least, that’s the ideal. Personally, I always fall short of it. Sometimes, in fact, I’m not even sure what is the loving thing to do. It’s as though my heart and soul and mind disagree about what actions are or are not loving. I find myself inwardly divided. Maybe it’s that way for some of you, as well. And so, I want to tell you something about how we can love when we feel like that—when the path before us is unclear.
Now, before I say anything else, I want to say this: in the end, the only love that counts is the love of God. Not our love—whether it be for God or for neighbour—but God’s love for us. It is on this—and this alone—that we stake our salvation. We do not earn our way into heaven. God embraces us in Jesus and calls us to come to him as a gift of his love. That is the important thing; the rest is simply us trying to respond as faithfully as we can.
God knows what we are like. God knows that we are often divided within ourselves, that we have conflict between the different parts of ourselves—that desires seek to overwhelm us, critical thoughts seek to misguide us, evil spirits whisper to our souls. God understands this, and God is forgiving when our love does not quite measure up. But still God calls us to love totally!
So, how do I know if I am loving well? What standard can I use to determine if I am on the right track, especially when other forces within and without me are calling into question the integrity of my love?
The apostle Paul knew where to look for such a standard. As our epistle lesson reminds us, Paul found his own integrity being questioned. His reputation came under attack from people who suggested he was not doing all things well, that he was in fact preying upon vulnerable people—seeking his own welfare rather than theirs and building up his own self rather than working for the glory of God and the good of others.
Paul faced the kind of accusations that most of us face during our lifetime—accusations that may be made by others, or even made within ourselves by our own self-doubts. How did he respond?
Well, in our reading from First Thessalonians, we see that he defended himself by appealing to a set of standards—and to how he has acted in accordance with those standards. He uses words like deceit and trickery and holds up concepts like purity and trust. He refers to actions like “shameful mistreatment” and states how one ought to share oneself with others while proclaiming the gospel to them. He speaks about flattering others and seeking personal praise—and he speaks about their opposites: about seeking to please God and being tender with others.
As we read Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, we find that there are in fact standards by which we can judge the quality of our love. They are the standards of the Bible—the standards of morality: the concrete and fixed morality of God, rather than the relative and ever-changing morality of humankind.
How do I know if I am loving as I ought? To me, the answer is found in Jesus’ observation that the greatest commandments do not replace the law and the prophets—they summarize them. If we feel as if we are off course, that the love we express in one part of our lives is somehow not showing up in the other parts, then we can check out our performance by looking at the guidelines found in Scripture. Using the standards of the Bible, we can check ourselves out—not as a way of judging or justifying ourselves, but as a way of improving ourselves, and thus of improving our world.
We Christians have two testaments, Old and New. There is the new message for us about God’s love, the nature of his Kingdom, and about eternal life; and there is also the older, original message which makes the new one understandable—which tells us who God is, in the first place. The first testament contains the law of God which Jesus summarizes in today’s gospel reading, and it shows us how to apply that law; and the second testament shows us—in Jesus—the perfect fulfillment of that law in human living. It gives us a great example to follow and to believe in.
In other words, there is a whole message, and not just a summary. We need to hear the whole message if we are to understand what is going on in us and in our world. That message reminds us that there are things like duty, responsibility, justice, accountability, sin, and punishment. It also reminds us that there are things like prayer, power, peace, reconciliation, mercy, and redemption.
Do I love as I ought? Am I on the right course? Those answers can be found in the answers to certain other questions—questions like: Do I have respect for others? Do I allow others to retain their dignity? Do I try to force my opinions upon my neighbours? Do I in fact give myself to others out of love? Or do I offer them only a sham of courtesy concealing some hidden agenda?
Do I love as I ought? The answer is found in the answer to questions like: Do I render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s? Do I pay my taxes and accept my responsibilities towards my fellow citizens? Do I support the legitimate work of the police and other authorities, or do I mock my nation’s laws? Do I lie or cheat to get ahead? Do I share my blessings willingly?
There are a lot of questions we can ask ourselves to help us decide if we are loving God and one another in the way we are called to do. It is good to ask these questions, for they do keep us honest. And, if sincerely asked and prayerfully thought about, their answers can lead us and our world to a greater wholeness. Ultimately, that is what Christian love is all about: it is about our wanting to be—and trying to be—faithful to God. It is about praying: “Lord, help me do what is right. Lord, help me love as I ought to. Lord, make me more like Jesus, who lived and died to set me free.”
Praise be unto his name, now and ever. Amen.