Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
[Proper 31], rcl yr b, 2021
Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
There is no other commandment greater than these
Quite a number of years ago I did a funeral for a family. Karl was the second husband to his wife, Katy, who had already died a year or so earlier; and Karl himself had no children or extended family. (These aren’t their real names.) All Karl had were his step-children, the grown up children from Katy’s previous marriage. And Katy’s children were never really sure about Karl, not because there was anything sinister about him, it was more that they would have chosen someone else to be their mother’s husband.
But their mother had chosen Karl. And so here they were, caring for someone who had become more stubborn in his old age, blind in one eye and not seeing out of the other, but still driving; he couldn’t hear anything you said; a man who suffered significant mental decline especially after the death of his beloved Katy.
But what was so special about this family, as much as they wished their mother hadn’t married Karl, they grew to love him, a love that showed largely in the way they cared for him. And as I got to know them, as they took their last (quite exhausted) steps with him, now in death, caringly preparing his funeral.
It was really exemplary. They didn’t love Karl because they had any natural affection for him of their own; not at first. They grew to love Karl by caring for him; they grew to love Karl not for themselves, but because someone they loved loved him. If their beloved mother had loved this man, that was enough.
This is how love works sometimes. We love others not because we have any natural attachment to them, but because someone we love loves them; and so we spend time with them; and then we begin to care for them; and through that, we begin to love others we would have never even come to know, except for the fact that someone we love loves them, and brings them into our lives.
Commandments like the ones Jesus recites to the scribe were not uncommon in Jesus’s world. In one somewhat entertaining story from the Babylonian Talmud, a Gentile approaches two rabbis saying “Make me a proselyte on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.”
Rabbi Shammai chased him away with a stick.
But Rabbi Hillel responded: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” This sounds much like what Jesus calls the second commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.
And the recitation of what Jesus calls the first commandment, including “love the Lord your God,” which comes from Deuteronomy—has been common in Jewish life for a very long time.
It appears that what is peculiar about Jesus’s teaching is not the command to love the neighbour, nor the command to love God, but that Jesus combines the two. And by combining them, now we can’t say, “Well I love God, and the love of neighbour, well that’s important, but not nearly as important as loving God.” Neither can we say “Well I love my neighbour, and love of God? Well I’ll do that once in a while …” No, for Jesus, there is no greater commandment than these: they are both held together, and we can’t do one without the other: if we love neighbour and we don’t love God, we are not following the commandment of God; if we love God and not our neighbour, we are not fully following Jesus.
I think Rowan Williams sums this up well. I’ve mentioned it before and it bears repeating. Because it helps explain the connection between love of God, and love of neighbour. The way Williams puts it, roughly, is that you can’t love God without loving the ones God loves. And God already loves your neighbour. If you love God, if you’re a follower of Jesus, you will simply find yourself among those that are loved by God, loving them: loving your neighbours.
Think again of Katie’s children. They loved Karl not because they chose Karl. They loved their step-father Karl because their mum, Katie, chose Karl; they loved Karl because someone they loved, loved him. Even though it wasn’t natural, or at all easy for them, especially at first. This is what it’s like to follow Jesus’s commandments here. For Jesus, there is no other commandment greater than these, the two commandments that are really one. Love God; love your neighbour. And so we love God; our worship today is an expression of that. And if we really love God, we love the ones that God loves: our neighbours.
When we really love God, if we really worship God in all his beauty and splendour, we will love the ones God has chosen to love, and not because we have chosen them, anymore than you have chosen your neighbour in the pew; or the neighbour in your neighbourhood or in your condo or apartment building; or more Biblically, your the neighbour that you meet along your way, like the Samaritan that meets his neighbour along his way, a man in great need. The neighbour, according to Jesus, is everyone you come across during your day, especially those who are in distress.
I will end on a slightly different note, but related note. And say that as we strive and struggle to love God and love our neighbour, the one who has already, most truly and completely fulfilled this commandment, is Jesus himself. Which is good news, because left to ourselves, loving God and our neighbour is actually quite difficult.
But as part of the body of Christ according to our baptism, we love in Jesus, the one who loved God enough to be obedient, even unto death. As part of the body of Christ according to our baptism, we love in Jesus, the one who loved his neighbour—each one of us in our distress—offering himself as a holy sacrifice for us, a living sacrifice for the sake of the world, dying that we might live.
And not just live, but to experience the fulness of life, because in Christ we are fully forgiven and reconciled, now able to follow his command, able in him to offer ourselves fully and completely in love to God, able in him to offer ourselves fully and completely in love to our neighbours; in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit AMEN.