When the Pharisees heard that he 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.” (Matthew 22:34-46)
Do you ever stop and wonder what is life all about? Do you ever wonder what are you and I doing here on this planet? How do we little human beings go about reaching God? What does God want us to do with our lives?
I don’t know about you, but when I was a teenager questions like this used to rattle around in my brain all the time. Even at this stage in the game many of us are still trying to figure out what we want to be when we grow up!
I used to get really discouraged trying to get a sense of direction for my life from the Bible. On the one hand, the Bible is too general. It doesn’t give answers to questions like “what career should I choose?” or “who should I marry?” or “should I marry?” If I want to know why I happened to be born in this particular place at this particular time in history the Bible doesn’t offer much of an answer.
On the other hand, the Bible can be very specific. There are lots of things it says to do, and lots of things it says not to do. The Old Testament has three books devoted mostly to God’s commandments (Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). There are lots of “Thou shalt do this-es” and “thou shalt not do thats” – too many for my teenage brain to remember! I thought to myself: what chance do I have of ever figuring out what God wants me to do, and getting it right?
Of course the Gospel message – the Good News – is that we don’t have to get it right. Jesus gave his life to pay the price for our sins, and to set things right between us and God. We don’t have to remember every single “do” and “do not” in the Bible… we can’t… it’s too much for most of us.
But the conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee in today’s reading from Matthew gives a wonderful guideline for those of us who want to please God but have problems remembering all the details. In their conversation, pleasing God comes down to two things: love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Easy to remember. Not so easy to do.
For starters, we need to come up with a working definition of “love”. What does it mean to love? Talk about a word that is over-used, misunderstood, and shrouded in mystery! People talk about it, fall into it, fall out of it, and even then still can’t figure out how to explain it. People write songs about it. Love Is an Open Door, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, Love is All You Need, Love Makes the World Go Round, might as well face it, you’re Addicted To Love. But what is love?
I would like to suggest that love is primarily a decision – a decision to take a course of action, to do what is beneficial for others. To be sure, love touches the emotions, it stirs our hearts. I don’t mean to make love sound like a cool, clinical, intellectual thing, because it’s not. Whether it’s falling in love, or loving a friend, or loving a parent or loving a child – when we love, our feelings are very close to the surface. But love is not primarily a warm fuzzy feeling. Jesus says elsewhere in scripture, “No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And we rightfully honor men and women who spend their lives, or give up their lives, in service to others. People don’t do these things because they have fuzzy feelings; they do it because they sense a higher call, a higher purpose.
So bringing this back to our reading from Matthew… Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with everything we are – heart, mind, and soul. But what does it mean to love God? I mean, if you have a friend you can give them a hug; if you’re visiting someone in the hospital you can hold their hand. But how do you love someone we can’t touch, can’t see, who is so much greater and more holy and more perfect than we are?
I’d like to suggest three things today. First, like with human love, loving God includes praising Him – telling God and telling others how wonderful God is. When we love someone we can’t shut up about them, and it’s the same way with God. Second, like with human love, loving God has more to do with actions than feelings. And third, when we love God we try to understand things from God’s point of view, to see things God’s way.
On the first point – finding wonderful things to say about God is pretty easy, because our God is fantastic! But we tend to get bogged down in life’s difficulties and forget to look up and be amazed by our God. At times like this I find it helpful to read the Psalms, particularly a psalm like this one that I was reading this morning:
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits –
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy…
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Bless the LORD, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding…
Bless the LORD, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the LORD, all his works, in all places of his dominion.
Bless the LORD, O my soul. (Psalm 103, excerpts)
That’s the heart of loving God.
On the second point – my old pastor, a wise man, has often suggested that loving God has a great deal to do with obeying God. The first time I heard him say that I kind of felt let down, like he was taking all the fun out of love. I mean, isn’t the word ‘obey’ the first thing we take out of the wedding vows? And I don’t know about you but I’ve seen enough of bullying and injustice and mis-use of authority in this world – ‘obedience’ can be a dangerous word. But when we’re looking at Jesus we’re not looking at the world or at human authority. We’re looking at a man who loves us enough to sacrifice himself for us.
Jesus says in John 14:13: “if you love me, keep my commandments”. And he amplifies that a few verses later:
“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14:23)
Which commandments, then, does Jesus ask us to keep? Jesus talks about many commandments during his time on earth, but often what he’s referring to are the ones God gave Moses – particularly the Ten Commandments.
When we think about the subject of love, the Ten Commandments are probably not the first things that spring to mind! But think about it. Think about what the Ten Commandments tell us to do. Honor our parents? That’s loving. Resist the temptation to kill, lie, cheat, steal, or want what doesn’t belong to us? That’s loving. It’s even more loving if we can do the opposite: if we can be faithful, if we can be honest, if we can be happy with what we have, if we speak the truth, if we let our enemies live. That covers a lot of ground on the road to love.
These commandments are about our relationships with other people. Which makes sense in light of what Jesus said about the second greatest commandment: “The second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In God’s world, loving other people is one way to love God. Mother Teresa said about the poor people she worked among, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” And when asked how we can begin to love this way, she added, “Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”
So loving others is a powerful way to love God. But there are some other commandments that deal with loving God directly. The first is “I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods but me.” God commands us not to bend our knees to anything or anyone else. And I want to suggest that if we obey that one command all the others fall into place. It’s only when we make something more important than God that we start to do things like steal, kill, lie, or cheat. If we love God we will speak his name with honor and we will live in such a way that brings honor to his name.
There’s one more commandment I haven’t mentioned yet, and that is: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. God says through Moses:
Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work– you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. (Exodus 20:9-10)
The longer I live, and the more I read God’s word, the more important this commandment becomes in my mind and in my heart… and here’s why: when Jesus says “love your neighbor as yourself” his words assume that we love ourselves. It’s impossible to love your neighbor without loving yourself. If your love-tank (so to speak) is empty, you’ve got nothing to give. Keeping the Sabbath is the one commandment that falls almost exclusively into the category of loving yourself.
When we work our fingers to the bone we’re not loving ourselves. When we’re running around trying to make this appointment and that meeting and this ball game over here and that event over there – we’re running ourselves ragged, and that’s not loving ourselves. God gave us a beautiful gift in the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not just about Sunday morning church – the Sabbath in Moses’ day was understood as a full day off, 24 hours from sundown to sundown, when God’s people have God’s permission to say “no” to the demands of the world and “yes” to rest and re-creation. A time to turn off all the noise that demands our attention and enjoy family, friends, nature, books, art, music… and prayer. All the things that make life worth living. Keeping the Sabbath can sometimes take a little creativity when we mix it with our modern schedules, but that’s OK. Your Sabbath can be Wednesday if that’s your day off. The important thing is to give ourselves the same permission God gives us to stop and rest once a week.
Which leads us to my third point – loving God means seeking to understand things from God’s point of view. Why is it that loving others and loving ourselves is a way of loving God? Because we are God’s creations, God’s handiwork. When we care for what God has made, we show our respect and care for God. It just makes sense. For example, if I plant a garden, and someone walks through that garden with me and bends over to smell the flowers and remarks on how beautiful it is, that person is loving and respecting me. But if someone throws trash in my garden or tears up the plants I worked so hard to grow, that person doesn’t love me. And it’s the same with God. If we love what God has made, we honor God.
So loving others and loving ourselves is a way of loving God. And there are other ways of seeing things from God’s point of view. Moses was an expert at this. His prayers in scripture are amazing in their depths of understanding God. Think back to Exodus and the episode with the golden calf. Moses was up on the mountain talking to God, receiving the Ten Commandments, and down at the foot of the mountain the people had made a golden calf and decided to call it god and worship it. God was furious and threatened to kill the people and build a new nation with Moses and his descendants. Remember Moses’ prayer for the people? He didn’t try to make excuses. He did not say, “The people didn’t know what they were doing Lord… they’re new at this “Chosen People” thing… c’mon, give ‘em a break.” No; Moses saw things from God’s point of view. He prayed, “Lord, what about the honor of your name? What will the Egyptians say? That you brought these people out into the wilderness in order to kill them? That you were not able to carry out your plan to make them your holy nation?” Scripture says Moses changed God’s mind.
Some of the things Moses says in Psalm 90, which we read earlier, profoundly express God’s point of view.
- He says, “before the world and the earth were formed, from eternity to eternity, God was there.”
- He says, “a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it is past”
- He says, “grass flourishes in the morning, and in the evening fades and withers… [and] we humans are like the grass; our years come to an end like a sigh; days full of trouble and soon gone.”
- Moses therefore prays, “Have compassion on your servants O Lord!”
- He says, “satisfy us… with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days…”
- He says, “Let us see your works, your power, let your favor be on us, prosper the work of our hands”
Moses knows God’s will for his people is mercy, health, and love; and that with him our lives will be abundant, full of joy, and have eternal meaning.
Jesus says in John 10:10, “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” This is God’s will for us. Loving God means understanding this. Loving God means trusting that God’s intentions towards us are good.
Life will always have its difficulties; but we trust that ultimately all things are in the hands of a loving God. To love God is to believe what God says… to follow where God leads… and to love the people that God has created.
Lord thank you for this word of Yours that we can keep in our hearts, that all the law and all the commandments can be summed up in loving You and in loving each other as we love ourselves. Thank you for making love the purpose of our lives. Teach us to love better and better each day, and by the power of your Holy Spirit inspire in our hearts love for each other, and above everything else love for Yourself. We pray in Jesus’ name, AMEN.