Love God; Love Your Neighbor
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Matthew 22:37-40 Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ our Lord… This morning’s Gospel lesson poses two questions for our consideration this morning: a Law question and a Gospel question. The Law question came from an expert in the Law, a Pharisee. It was designed to trap Jesus in His own words. “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” In other words, if you could summarize all that Moses taught in one simple commandment, what would it be? The other question is a Gospel question, posed by Jesus. It was a question designed to trap the Pharisees in the forgiving grace of Jesus: “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?”
The question, “Which is the great commandment of the Law?” was something the Pharisees wanted desperately to know. If God expected us to obey His law – and He does – then what did the Law require? The great debate among the teachers at the time of Jesus was whether the Torah, the five books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy), could be reduced to one essential commandment from which all the others flowed. They were, in a manner of speaking, searching for the Torah in a nutshell, a bumper-sticker slogan that would fully capture the Law of God.
But this amounted to nothing more than an attempt to defang the Doberman and render it harmless; it is what is called the “religion of St. Minimum.” In other words, what is the least that I have to do to make it? How often do I really have to go to church? How much do I really have to give? How often do I really need to pray? How much do I really need to know? What’s the bottom line? The religion of St. Minimum tries to keep things practical, and painless. It turns the Law into a household pet that you take for a walk whenever you want to look religious. It delights in loopholes; it bargains with God to be “fair.” It tries to trim the Law down to a more manageable size.
Jesus, of course, sensed the trap. He knows what is in a person’s heart. He knows how we twist and turn against God’s law. He replied with not one, but two great commands: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.” Heart, soul, and mind is the Hebrew way of saying every last bit of you, nothing held back from God. Love God with every fiber of your being. That is the first and great commandment.
“And a second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself.” The two go hand in hand. The love of God and the love of our neighbor are inseparable; you cannot claim to love God if you do not love your neighbor. On these two commandments – the love of God and the love of the neighbor – the entire Torah and the Prophets hang. Essentially the entire law of God can be boiled down to two simple commandments: Love God with your whole being, and love whomever God puts next to you as you love yourself.
And if that still doesn’t fit on your bumper sticker, you can trim the Law down to one four-letter word: Love. But we have trouble with that word. We have been trained to think that love is a feeling, something you fall into, a warm fuzzy on our insides. But love is not a feeling; it is an orientation of the will in action toward another. To love God and to love our neighbor does not mean that we have particular feelings about God or our neighbor. That is not to say that love doesn’t have feelings associated with it; it certainly does. But love itself is not a feeling.
Neither is love something that you fall into. You fall into holes and ditches, not into love. It’s a curious expression, “to fall into love.” Falling means losing your balance, losing your control. Falling is an out-of-control experience. People who have lost control of their lives often have nightmares of falling.
Love is a deliberate action of the will. To love means deliberately to turn ourselves toward someone, to give away something of yourself to someone and expect nothing in return. In I Corinthians 13 St. Paul describes love in self-sacrificing terms: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” To love is to be turned inside-out toward someone outside of yourself – whether toward God or toward your neighbor.
As Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan, your neighbor, who is the object of your love, is anyone whom God has put in your path, anyone who has need of you at any particular moment. And so we love God by loving our neighbor. The cup of water given to someone who is thirsty is given to God. The food given to the hungry is given to God. The comfort given to someone who is suffering is given to God. The time spent enriching the lives of others – at home, at work, in our community and congregation – is time offered to God.
How do we love God? Let us count the ways. We love God by having no other gods in our hearts, by giving God our whole-hearted fear, love, and trust. We love God in our use of His Name in worship and prayer, and by our glad attention to His Word. We love God by honoring the authorities He has placed over us, by caring for the health and well-being of our neighbor’s body, by upholding marriage in the way we conduct our own sexual lives, by helping our neighbor improve and protect his property and income; by upholding our neighbor’s reputation and not participating in gossip or slander; by being content with what we have rather than continually wanting what we don’t have.
Those are some of the ways by which we love God and our neighbor. We know that. But we also know and confess that we do not love God as we have been commanded to do. There is a gnawing and deep fear within us when we hear the Law’s demand to love God and love our neighbor. We shudder at the command to be holy as God is holy. Or we deny it and ignore it, for who can be so loving, who can be so holy?
The question of the Law leads to another question: “Who then can be saved?” If God demands such wholehearted love for Himself and for others, then who would dare to step into God’s presence? Would you? You know you don’t love like that. Not even Mother Theresa loved like that. The Law question kills us. If the entire Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments, then we are hung by the Law and the Prophets.
And as long as we are asking such Law questions, we cannot arrived at the “Jesus question.” Jesus Himself asks the question: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is He?”
The Pharisees said that the Messiah or the Christ was David’s son, a blood-descendent of David. But there was more to the Messiah than royal blood in His family. How then can David’s son be David’s Lord, as David prayed by the Holy Spirit in the psalm, “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet”? That is the Jesus question, and the answer puts an end to all the questions.
The Messiah is David’s son, a human being, and He is also David’s Lord. He is both God and man, a truth we confess in the Creed when we say He is “begotten of His Father from all eternity” and “born of Mary.” Jesus is referring us to the mystery of His Incarnation, the mystery that in Him God has become man. He came to be holy as His Father in heaven is holy. He came to restore the image of God to our fallen humanity. He came to love God with His whole heart, with His entire being, with His whole mind. He came to love His neighbor as Himself.
Jesus came to love us with God’s love. He loved us even when we were unlovable. Jesus is love to the loveless. He loved us to death on a cross. “While we were yet God’s enemies, He sent His Son to die for us.” While we were dead in our sinfulness, God gave us Christ’s perfect life, His suffering, His death, and His resurrection as a gift in our Baptism. Baptized into Christ, trusting in Him and not in ourselves, we are already perfect saints in the eyes of God. Eternal life is ours in Christ. Forgiveness of sins is ours. The perfect love of God is ours.
And our love flows from God’s love. When we love, it is because we have first been loved by God in Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection frees us to love God and to love our neighbor. We no longer have to love; we get to love. We don’t love in order to get to heaven; we love because heaven is already ours in Christ. We don’t love in order to win God’s favor; we love because we already have God’s favor in Christ. We don’t love so that God will love us; we love because God has already loved us in Christ with the greatest love we will ever know, the crucified love of Jesus.
Which is the greatest command of the Law? Love God; love your neighbor. On these hang the entire Torah and the Prophets. Greater than your love, and greater than the Law that judges your love, is the One who loves perfectly – David’s Son and David’s Lord, Jesus the Christ. On Him hangs the sin of the world. On Him hangs your life and your salvation.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.