October 25, 2020 (Proper 25, Year A)
Lessons for Proper 25, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2,15-18; Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; and, Matthew 22:34-46.
During a class discussion on early law codes, one of my classmates asked how many laws there were in the state of Florida. I am sure that somebody out there knows the answer, but it wasn’t us. We decided to do some research, and this past week I updated my research. I mean how bad could this be? I soon discovered that as of 2020 Florida Statutory Law contains forty-eight titles with one-thousand, thirteen chapters between them, each chapter containing multiple parts and each part containing multiple rules. Title 23, Chapter 316, called the “State Uniform Traffic Control Law,” itself contains at least two-hundred, seventy-six parts. I lost count! The Florida code covers things that you might expect: theft, assault, murder, and all manner of both minor and grievous offenses. But the statues also cover some rather extraordinary things like the legal classification of “swamp buggies,” the prohibition of men wearing strapless dresses in public, and the illegality of fishing while driving across a bridge. There are some very unique laws in local municipalities as well that make it illegal to sell oranges on the streets of Miami, to eat cottage cheese in Tampa after six pm on Sundays, to gossip in Oakland, Florida (wherever that is), and if you are in Sarasota do not tie your elephant to a parking meter.
There are a lot of laws and only the most ardent lawyer might remember them all. But any time that people live together in a community, gather as groups or form any sort of organization they outline the expectations they have for their common life. Smaller groups might only have a few rules and rules might not be formally inscribed, but all groups have some sort of expectations for how people relate to one another. As groups get larger and more diverse, the number and specificity of rules tend to increase, as well.
One of the greatest achievements of the people of Israel was the enshrinement of the Israelite law code as part of their sacred story. The disparate collection of laws found in their foundational story, called the Torah (itself meaning “law”), governing how the Israelites were to worship God and live with each other. While only numbering six-hundred, thirteen (virtually nothing compared to modern statutory law), they were nonetheless difficult to remember, especially for a people largely unable to read and write. Throughout Israelite history, therefore, teachers, lawyers, and religious scholars discussed and fabricated ways to summarize the law code into general principles that would be easily remembered for everyday use. They argued about such things as the minimum number of required principles, the parsing of legal terms, and what was the greatest law of them all. The prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi all offer some version or hint at such summaries. One of my favorite summaries, because it frames the law in positive and active terms, is from the prophet Micah
“God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, And to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God.”
This is the long-standing discussion/argument that Jesus gets drawn into, asked by the lawyer, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest” (Matthew 22:36). Now, since Jesus had just spent quite the time (two chapters in Matthew narrative) defending himself against the Herodians, Sadducees, Pharisees, Scribes, and Lawyers (in other words, against all the religious leaders of Judah having joined forces) there is no reason to believe the sincerity of the question. And, indeed, the question is yet another trap to get Jesus to say something that will make it easier for the religious and secular authorities to prosecute Jesus for violating the law, of which they have been accusing Jesus since the beginning.
So here in Matthew’s gospel, we have this lawyer asking Jesus what the GREATEST commandment is—and once again, Jesus shakes up the rules. He gives TWO answers. First, he cites a commandment every good Jew would know because they recited in two times a day at morning and at evening: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And then, without pausing for breath, he goes on: “Also, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
As Jesus repeatedly emphasizes throughout the Gospels, the point of the Law was not to follow every literal word and comma but to understand that the Law was, at its base, about relationships. The rules in the Ten Commandments had two kinds of orientations: the first four were about one’s relationship with God, and the last six were about one’s relationship with others.
Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that everything in the Law and Prophets is meant to create a community in which justice and peace prevail—what we would call the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s terminology. The heart of God’s kingdom on earth and in our hearts, which was considered to be the seat of a person’s will, is LOVE. That is what makes Jesus’s message so compelling, then and now. And Jesus was talking about a specific kind of love for which we lack a perfect word. The word in Greek was agape, which isn’t based on romance or fleeting desire but about an outward orientation of compassion and enacting shalom—wholeness, contentment, wellness as well as peace—for the sake of others.
The kind of love Jesus is talking about is the glue that holds communities together. It seeks to overcome divisions. This kind of love, not romantic love, is the subject of Paul’s famous celebration of love in 1 Corinthians 13, no matter how many times it gets recited at weddings—it is, as Paul puts it, patient, kind, not boastful or arrogant or rude. It is flexible and giving instead of insisting on getting its own way, and doesn’t take pleasure in the pain, suffering, or bad behavior of others. It is an action, not an emotion—for it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It is the stuff of eternity, for it never ends. It is the love that we encounter in Jesus—and which Jesus calls us to embody in word and truth. It’s an abundant love, draped in mercy and healing, that seeks to build up.
It is not the kind of love you are helpless against—just the opposite. That might be why it is sometimes in such short supply, even in our Christian communities. The paucity of the English language in being able to articulate this kind of love might be somewhat to blame—after all, the words we have or don’t have shape how we think. Yet that’s not the whole story. Our entire culture tries to convince us that love shouldn’t be hard work for us, fallible humans. The mere fact that Jesus has to keep telling us to do it tells us that it IS. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also beautiful and wondrous—and we experience it when we still our hearts and souls so that we can hear and know God’s presence in our lives. It’s the kind of love that sings out, wonderingly, about amazing grace—both given AND received. And we are blessed and called to be vessels of that grace!
This love to which we are called is a lasting love grounded in joy and wonder—that helps us hear the praise of God in a baby’s cry and a bird’s song as it takes to the sky. This kind of love helps us see the beauty that surrounds us that God has placed in each other and the world around us. This is a lasting love that does not wax and wane with the seasons but endures all things BECAUSE it sees with eyes of compassion and hope.
This love is a conscious decision we make each day as disciples of Jesus in our mind as well as our hearts to love our neighbors, especially those who are different from us—God’s image is embedded in everyone. It is the love we practice as we draw together in the Eucharist every time we celebrate it alongside saints and all the company of heaven. This love is as countercultural as anything can be, because it doesn’t seek to sort people into winners and losers but seeks the welfare and repair of the world. It calls us to give of ourselves for the good of the community in a way that is deliberate and open-hearted.
So where do we begin? One tangible way to step toward this kind of love is by practicing justice for others—to stand alongside those who are often denigrated or seen as “less than” in our society, and to treat them as we ourselves would wish to be treated.
It can even be simpler than that. It’s the kind of love that calls us to reconsider the kind of off-hand cutting remarks that are poisonous to communities. It’s about giving people the benefit of the doubt and offering the grace we would want to receive when people aren’t being their best selves. We can acknowledge our own woundedness, and instead try to see the pain behind others’ actions, rather than lash out at ourselves.
This love is about turning aside a harsh word with a word of compassion. It’s about letting go of the resentments of the past that threaten to drag us under and instead of trying to find it within ourselves to break the cycle of retribution that wounds us as much as others.
This is the kind of love we see Jesus exemplifying not just for our benefit but as our template. And when we ask how much love we are called to give, he answers us as in John 13:34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” And that’s a LOT of love.
It’s the kind of love that calls us joyfully into the fields of the Lord, where we dedicate our time, talent, and treasure to the building up of the abundant harvest of this community, which is what true stewardship is about.
We cannot build our happiness by inflicting pain or vengeance, or even deliberate carelessness, on others. And the amazing thing that we learn by embracing this path of discipleship is that in seeing through eyes of compassion and mercy, we stop the cycle of injury and move toward wholeness and contentment in a way that vengeance and pettiness will never accomplish.
The 20th-century saint, humanitarian, social justice activist, and devout Catholic Dorothy Day loved the poor and oppressed that she worked alongside so much that she inspired countless others to follow in her footsteps. She noted, “Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each others’ faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others… It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other.”
This is love that doesn’t end in gratitude but instead starts with gratitude and open-hearted generosity. It is love that can change the world one community at a time. Starting with each one of us, seeking to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God every moment.
For this Love is the most powerful force in the world.
Love that conquered death, rolled back the stone of oppression, injustice, and violence to bring us to new life and new hope in our risen, living Savior.
Love that knocks at the doors of our hearts and asks to be allowed in.
Love that is based on real peace and abundance for all.
Love that calls us to act to heal our world in place of the violence that continues to wound it.
Let’s step forward in faith and hope, seeking to embody the only law that matters– the Law of Love.