In the two great commandments (Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost. Matthew 22:34-46) we have the central tenant of the gospel, of the kingdom – the core of what God is, and always has been, about: love. God’s love is the impulse of creation, the momentum of salvation history, the purpose of Christ’s life, teachings, death and new life. Love is our origins, our purpose, our calling and our hope.
Thousands, probably millions, of words have been spoken in churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, meeting rooms, caves – about love. And yet, look around, we are unchanged it would seem by words about love. It is love itself that is needed. Love made real in all the ordinary aspects of life.
God loves us. God cherishes us. We live, move and have our being because we are creatures who are loved. And yet most of us struggle to know ourselves loved – to believe it, to feel it, to be confident of that love. We know that we ought to love God with all that we have yet we run hot and cold, grateful one moment and wanting to dedicate our life to living out of this great Source of love, and then the next day finding our prayers a chore and an empty ritual.
Maybe our struggle to feel loved is why the second commandment is so difficult: to love our neighbour as ourselves. It is the “golden rule” that is common to all the world’s great religions and to most philosophies that we should “do unto others what we would have them do to us”. We struggle to love ourselves. And we certainly seem to struggle to love others. If you are like me then there are times when you are awash with strong feelings for others – desire, sympathy, compassion. And yet sustained feelings, words and actions motivated by love seem largely to remain just beyond my reach. And that is part of our problem! We in this contemporary time think love is primarily a warm feeling rather than an imperative to live, act, move and have our being guided by the principle of love. Which although heavy handed is in part the purpose of the Ten Commandments and the endlessly detailed laws in Leviticus – love described in practical detail.
Sometimes love for our neighbour is all about feelings. Eighteen years ago, after my mother was suddenly killed in an accident, I was “gifted” with an experience I have come to refer to as “Golden Threads.” For a period of three or four days I remained in a state of loving perception in which I could see what bound me to each person I met. As people came to me, to express condolences or sympathy, I could see what brought them – love, fear, a need to share their own loss, curiosity, and duty. I saw this as clearly as golden threads that ran between us and drew us together and then apart. I felt no judgement when I discerned that they came with their own needs only awareness. I knew it could not last, it was too intense. And yet it remains with me as a memory and an idea of how love might be – all seeing, all accepting – perceptive and yet not judgemental, and most of all knowing that we are bound by golden chords of love.
Love is not, however, always gentle and sweet. Remember Paul’s words. Paul is very good at getting down and getting very real and sweaty with those he cares for. Paul is quite prepared to wrestle with those he most loves. It often seems that he is wrestling for his own reputation, and maybe he was at times, but he is also wrestling for his understanding of the gospel. A gospel which was radically more inclusive and less rule bound than the gospel which pushed that all must become circumcised Jews before they could become Christians. Paul understood the purpose of Scripture and tradition to be to help people into a right relationship with God, so that they would become rightly orientated to the things of God and their behaviour give expression to God’s love. His opponents not only feared for themselves but for their God. People then, as now, often feared a gospel of love and preferred a gospel of fear and control.
Jesus is clear, in this week’s gospel reading that the law, the word, hangs upon the two great commandments of love. That wisdom, truth, moral conduct, even Scripture, flows out of love and must be formed and informed by love. Love that is so real that it flows into every aspect of life. The two great commandments were not only or even primarily a commandment to have feelings but rather to have an orientation in life, a guiding principle around which to organise our life, a purposeful way of making real in the outside world of relationships and behaviour those internal convictions.
Remember the detail of Leviticus which can either be a constricting list of rules or a challenging and life affirming description of what a community informed by practical love looks like. What would a contemporary Leviticus chapter 19 vs 9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest” look like? Maybe, “When you receive your wages you will budget so that some of your plenty is made available to those who do not have the security of work, home ownership”. Or “you shall not defraud your neighbour; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a labourer until the morning.” Maybe this could read: “you will recognise the distant peoples who work in sweat shops in developing countries for the brand name sports shoes and tracksuits you wear as your neighbours and you shall pay fair prices so that they and their children can eat, be educated and work in safety”. Or closer still to heart: “you shall pay the extra money and buy coffee that is traded at a fair price so that our coffee growing neighbours can live with dignity and health”.
You get the point. It would be an interesting exercise to think of some other contemporary guidelines about how to practically love our neighbours. And our neighbourhood, for all of creation, not just humanity, is from God and is loved by God. The second great commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves is not only about how to share our excess on the good days it is urgently about how we live in relationship with others in every aspect of life every day.
And so we return to God, to love, to the source of all things good. For without love all our good works are just busyness, just the clanging of a gong. We give thanks for those days when our hearts open to those around us and we feel love both great and small for those we share our life with, for those we meet, and for those with whom we share this fragile planet but do not know. And we pray for the conviction and strength to live out of a principle of love that is beyond the vagaries of emotion. We pray to grow mature in love, like trees planted by life giving waters bearing sweet fruit.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, grow in us so that we may grow in you.