Trinity Episcopal, Searcy, Ark.
October 23, 2011
This is the final episode in Matthew where we see the leaders of the religious/political establishment directly challenge Jesus. Jesus was becoming popular with the crowds, and the elite were getting nervous. They needed to embarrass him in front of the crowds; or get him to say something that they could later use against him in court. These duplicitous intentions notwithstanding, today they ask a good question: what is the greatest commandment in the law—the greatest among the 248 commandments and the 365 prohibitions in scripture.
In answer, Jesus quotes two separate passages in the Law that commend and command love: first of God and then of neighbor. He goes on to add that not only are these love commands the most important, but also that the entire Law and the prophets, hence the religion of Israel, hang on them. That is to say, all the rest of the commandments find their place in relation to these two. These two commandments should, Jesus says, interpret the meaning and direct the application of all the rest. Said more pointedly, if the other commandments are not done as an expression of one of these two, then they are done wrongly.
When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, for example, he does what he says. The religious tradition of his day insisted that no work was to be done on the Sabbath. Jesus work of healing pointedly challenged that tradition. His action said that a work of love, in this case healing, trumped the traditional Sabbath prohibition against working. Indeed, according to Jesus, it seems that to not heal on the Sabbath because it would have counted as work, would have been obeying the Sabbath regulation wrongly.
While Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath got him into trouble with the religious establishment, it exemplified his belief that love was the criterion of all the other commandments, including those in the top ten.
I can remember, believe it or not, my confirmation class in the Presbyterian Church when I was 12 years old. That I can remember being confirmed at 12 is the only internal evidence I have that I was at one time in fact 12 years old. At the beginning of the class, the preacher provocatively announced to us that there was a way we could disobey the Ten Commandments and get away with it. I’m pretty sure he didn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s how I heard it. I was shocked.
He asked us if we knew how. None of us did. So he informed us that we could justly disobey the commandments by love. While he didn’t explain it very well, what I think he was getting at was that love was the criterion for doing or not doing the Ten Commandments.
This is a slippery slope here, so let’s be concrete. A classic example that you might find in ethics books is this. A man has a critically ill child. There is a medicine that can cure him in the local pharmacy. But the pharmacist, being a greedy person, has raised the price exorbitantly. The man can’t afford it. The moral question then is: is the man justified in stealing it?
To be precise, the question is not which is more sinful: stealing or letting his child die under these circumstances by not stealing. It is not about the pathos of tragic situations. The question is: would he be right to steal and wrong to not steal? Does love demand that he disobey the commandment: thou shalt not steal?
Another example is the topic of the Dr. Muirhead’s class this month: euthanasia. When are actions that take a life, or hasten the dying process, or don’t impede it, morally justified, if ever?
Similarly and finally, if someone is about to harm an innocent person, am I justified in preventing it if it means inflicting harm on the potential aggressor?
These may be, thankfully, uncommon scenarios in most peoples’ real lives, but their extreme nature can clarify issues at stake in less extreme, albeit similar, circumstances.
When Jesus made love the criterion of what is right, he begged the question, as we often do, “What is love?” Insofar as it’s the standard for Christian moral behavior, it would behoove us to know what it is.
For Christians here as elsewhere, Jesus is the model. When we look hard at the record, however, Jesus doesn’t always appear as loving as we might expect. He says some pretty rough things to friends and enemies alike. For example, he calls his opponents today “hypocrites.” In other places, he calls them “children of the devil,” and in others, “snakes, and broods of vipers.” He is equally blunt with his disciples: “How much longer must I put up with you!” he wails at them as he bewails their tepid commitment and frail belief. He even calls the spokesman of the group the mouthpiece of Satan. If this is love, it is, in common jargon, “tough love.”
I hasten to point out that to suggest, as I am doing, that Jesus’ love was tough love is not to say that being mean can pass for love. The tough love that Jesus exhibited is love, and is not the same as, nor can it be an excuse for, meanness or spite or revenge, and so on.
In contrast to Jesus’ example of tough love, however, what often passes for love is better labeled “sentimentality.” Sentimentality is love without backbone, without roots. It is love that hasn’t matured, and so bears meager fruit. It waters the ground with ineffectual, merely aesthetic tears. Sentimentality is love that “can’t handle the truth.”
The difference between love and sentimentality is precisely truth. Love doesn’t confuse truth with drama and emotion the way that sentimentality does. Love can handle the truth because love believes; sentimentality, on the other hand, merely feels.
Love is not satisfied with deep feeling. Love desires the truth as well, and will search it out so that the good it desires for the neighbor will be on target; so that what it does will matter, to the neighbor.
Something occurred to me that other day that was probably overdue. It is so simple that it is hard to say. It is: the love we Christians love with is the love of God for us. The love we love with as Christians is the love of God for us, that has found its way into us. It is precisely the love of God for us that finds its way into us, that gets expressed through us toward other people when we really love them. This is the only pure love there is.
It is not that this love is selfless exactly. The self is included in it, for it is the self that is loved by God that is doing the loving. “I” don’t disappear. On the contrary, in a way, I step out of the shadows. The one I am as loved by God steps out to do this particular act of love—whatever it is—but I don’t do it out of merely personal or humanistic motivation or socially conditioned goodness. In other words, minus God’s love for me, I wouldn’t do this act of love; in fact, it’s likely that it wouldn’t have even occurred to me to consider it. While this may sound cynical, I think it is just realistic, and is certainly Biblical: “We love,” St. John said, “because God first loved us.”
And so, and finally, Christian love, as an expression of the love of God for us, is based in faith. Indeed, that is how the love of God for us gets in us: through faith. Faith in God’s love for us is God’s love in us. Faith in God’s love for us becomes God’s love in us that is expressed in our love, our acts of love, for our neighbor.
Our faith is that the goodness in life has a source beyond accidental circumstance, namely in the love of God for the world. It is the faith that the God who is love has entered the world definitively in the truth that was present in the historical life and death of the human being Jesus. It is the faith that this life and death made present by the Spirit throughout history and in the unique circumstances of our lives manifests the love that is the meaning not only of the commandments but of the creation itself.