Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
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.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, `The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”‘? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
There are 2 ancient laws that are foundational to our lesson this morning.
The first comes from the book of Deuteronomy, containing what is the most essential law in Judaism, called the Shema. It says “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. These words shall be in your heart. And you shall teach them to your children. You shall talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up.” (Deut. 6.4-9)
And the book of Leviticus says “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor, you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: you shall reprove your neighbor, You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19)
Jesus is asked in the gospel lesson this morning to sift through the hundreds and hundreds of laws in the Jewish Old Testament and say what is THE most important commandment. He chooses to combine these two law codes I have just read you: the law of Shema and the law of Leviticus. It is an extraordinary thing that he does, and it has huge implications for the life and mission of Christians.
In choosing the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Jesus reminds us that the MOST important thing is that we love God with everything we have. Our hearts, our minds, our energies and our resources. We should strive to wake up in the love of the Lord and fall asleep in the love of Lord. And we should carry it everywhere we go in between. That is why we have been created and it is how we know joy. AND he quotes Leviticus saying we are to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We are to love our neighbors as we hope to be loved by others, as we love ourselves and, as God loves them. In tying together the imperative to love God and to love our neighbor, Jesus has transformed those ancient laws and their meaning for our lives.
No more is our relationship to God individual and self-centered. No more is loving God a singular effort. Likewise, no more is the quality of our human relationships a personal matter. No, now these two loves are tied together such that they are the same love. Loving our neighbor is loving our God and loving our God is loving our neighbor. How well we do one is directly reflected in how well we do the other.
Whether our neighbor is family or stranger, friend or foe, it does not matter to Jesus. Neighbor love in light of God means we do not care about others because they ask for it, or because we think they deserve it. It means seeking to love the stranger as well as we love our own family and as well as we think we need to be loved. Jesus is plainly telling us that the very affection, care and spiritual energy that we offer to others, is a clear reflection of the love, care and affection that we reserve for God. Where we are generous and free with our care and affections, we are so with God. And where we are reserved, judgmental, and self-serving with our neighbors, we are reserved, judgmental and self-serving with God. The love of neighbor and the love of God are the same thing.
Now this imperative to love another as you would God is not an easy one. In some cases it is the hardest thing we are asked to do. Given the complicated nature of human relationships, how vulnerable we are and how hurtful we can be towards one and other, this is by no means an easy prospect. But this commandment is also an invaluable gift from God.
We cannot see God, but we can see our neighbor. And because the love we have for God is the same as our neighbor, we can see for ourselves, with full clarity, the nature of our love for God. Where we hold back, refuse to forgive, show partiality to others or fail to trust, there we discover the flaws in our love of God. And that is where we can begin to seek a deepening in our love of God, through seeking reconciliation with others. This is why Jesus tied these 2 commandments together. He is offering us a path to him. We can use our human relationships as both a means of expressing our love of God AS WELL as a tool to recognize when we are failing to love God with all that we have. This challenge is where we must have faith, that we would not be called to love God with all our heart, with all our soul and with all our mind if God had not already made us able to do so.
3 weeks ago I found myself alongside a fabulous group of St. Jamesers mudding drywall inside a dilapidated trailer home, on top of remote Barnes Mountain, Kentucky. Frankly, I had never encountered Americans so vastly different. Our whole team was amazed to find in this isolated mountain community, just a few hours’ drive from here, such a unique culture, with a version of English that is almost indecipherable, and a profound depth of poverty. With chained snarling Rottweiler, yards littered with rusted cars, crumbling trailer homes that are more plastic than plaster, life is lived literally and figuratively on the edge. Even their Christian faith was foreign to us: foot washing is more important than receiving communion and the scriptures are rarely ever read, as the power of the Spirit is given greater precedence. Our team quickly realized that summiting that Appalachian peak meant entering into relationship with neighbors who do not see the world the same way we do. Loving our neighbor became a challenge, because first we had to understand our neighbor.
And so we must return to the Shema and Jesus’ teaching this morning. Our mission on Barnes Mountain, as it is every day, is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul and to love our neighbor with that very same love. In mission, we are called to encounter our neighbor and the love of God in them exactly how they are. We love them no matter their color, creed, economic status or nationality. We believe that God resides in them and as followers of the Shema, our life’s purpose is to seek and serve God in our neighbor for the sake of our love.
Thanks be to God, that community gave our team an invaluable lesson in the dignity of American poverty, in the integrity of their choices and a new perspective in need. We found in that community a wealth that resides not in material possessions, but in relationship. And the welcome we got, from the very moment we arrived said that the depth of our pockets was nothing to them compared to the depth of our goodness. And God used us, to be in service to his love of Barnes Mountain neighbors.
I was amazed on that mountaintop mission, how generous those St. Jamesers were with strangers. Not one member of the team hesitated to serve, hesitated to give, or hesitated to abandon a preconceived notion of poverty in America. They sought in prayer, service and humility to serve the needs of the community in housing, food and financial support, while upholding the dignity that is inherent to them as creatures of God. They arrived on that mountaintop with love and did not change their affections simply because their neighbors were different than any they had ever known. They loved, and in that love there was such generosity, such goodness and such divinity that they found it returned to them in kind. Returned to them by our neighbors as well as our Lord.
Thanks be to God.