In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are told in the gospel reading that a lawyer approached Jesus to ask him a question. Now lawyers were often well educated in matters concerning the Jewish law. He asked Jesus, of the commandments which one is the greatest of all? This was no easy question because the Jewish law is said to speak of some six hundred thirteen commandments. He asks Jesus out of all these commandments that we have been given, laws that we are told that we should keep, which one is the most important? This is a fair question. Some things are more important than others. Do you ever feel pulled in two different directions, or ten different directions? We often complain about “stress” but stress isn’t so much about hard work as it is about being pulled between competing obligations, all of which you can’t always fulfill. In the stress, Jesus, when I’m making choices, and I can’t do it all, which commandment is the most important? I’m not a lawyer but I want to know.
Jesus answers, “The first is, Hear O’ Israel there is only one God, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). The second one is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” So Jesus not only told him what the first commandment is but also the second. Love God, self, and neighbor, and let the rest go. If you follow these commandments you will mostly keep the others because that love is what they are about.
It sounds so simple when Jesus sums it all up like that. Indeed, we seem to hear similar things all the time. Love is the stuff movies are made of; it is the theme of the songs on the radio, and the subject of a good bumper sticker. Fairly often one hears something like, “All you need is love.” Or “Love is the answer.” Love itself can seem to be the solution to our troubles as if love was the one thing lacking in the world. But the problem for human beings, all of us, is not that we are incapable of love. Each of us love many things. I love my wife, a good cup of coffee, my country, Red Sox games. I love God, and donuts, my mother, a day at the beach, meaningful work, conversation with friends. The list goes on and on. There are so many of them that they compete with each other. Love competes with love: Work, family, church, social obligations, and people who are suffering who we don’t even know all ask for attention. They cannot be loved equally. None of them, however, can be ignored. It gets really confusing, stressful, and hard. Love is, arguably, not so much the answer; it is the problem.
Love is important because it is that force that connects us as individuals to other people, to things, and to God. What you love says a lot about what kind of person you are. Jesus doesn’t just say to love. He says to set some priorities within our loves. How do you decide what to love? He says, “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.”
Why is God first? Why love God at all? Isn’t there already not enough love in the world that we can’t afford to give most of it to the invisible God? Why, according to Jesus, is the love of God the essential starting point? The best way to answer this question is to pay close attention to your own experience. Have you ever really tried to make yourself love anything that you don’t love … like broccoli (or the New York Yankees). Our hearts are far from being in our own control. Where does the love come from? We can’t just manufacture it whenever we want. If you truly struggle with love in your own heart, you find yourself close to prayer. None of us love with love that we generate ourselves. Frankly, none of us even knew what it was until our first experience of having someone else look us in the eye and say, “I love you.” It was only then, that we could look into our own hearts, recognize love, and respond, “I love you too.” We love by giving away love we were originally given by someone else. God is first because God is the overflowing source.
Scripture says that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). We have been loved first, and our love for God is an answering or echoing love. It is giving back what we have been given first. Loving God will never make you less. It will never diminish you. Love of God will never become a source of shame. The reason is that love of God, if it is true love, necessarily transforms all our other loves. It purifies them, spills over into them, and renews them. The more you love God, the more love you have for yourself and for those around you. The more love you give God, the more you have to give to yourself and everyone else.
To love rightly, morally, and well you must love in a way that is appropriate to the object you love. Loving something the wrong way is what the church calls “sin” (which is still a useful word). To confess that one has “sinned” is to confess that one has not managed to love in the way we ought to. Loving wrongly causes harm and damage, yet it’s really hard to avoid. To love anything with the kind of love reserved only for God leads to disappointment and dissatisfaction. No object can fill in that space within us reserved for love and worship of God. Whenever anything in the world is loved wrongly, it unravels–unable to bear such weight. It was not created to serve such purposes. It can’t be what it is not. No matter how much I want that donut to be a meal, it just isn’t real food. It can not bear such weight. It was not made to serve such purposes. To love it as a meal is to make it what it never can be. There is great anguish and ambiguity that comes when we don’t get the love right. So Jesus doesn’t say just to love anything at all, but to love God, people, and oneself.
If you are skeptical about Jesus’ teaching, here’s a question to ask of any of your loves. Does it make you better? Another way of putting the question is this: “Do I like who I am while I am loving this? Do I like who I am when I love this person, this thing, this success?” So much of life is about learning how to love in a way that is good for you. To start, not with God, but with the self, is like trying to make one’s way in the world with only a mirror. No matter how much time you spend looking at your own image, the mirror is just too small not to distort reality. Not enough of the world fits in the mirror. Our perception of ourselves too easily become warped kind of like looking at yourself in those mirrors at the circus (if you have seen them).
God’s love calls out what is best in us, and that is how it leads to a love of self that isn’t self-centered or distorted by our own narrow point of view. Love, once we have it as Jesus described it, wants to mature and expand. It changes as it grows up. More and more, then, one loves oneself because of what one means to God and those nearest us. Loving myself and loving those who care about me and loving the God who cares about me become more and more the same thing. When our loves mature, rather than competing with each other and adding to our stress, they pull together in one direction. We connect to the world around us, rather than being isolated from it. It always means some hard work and making sacrifices along the way, but it is the kind of effort that makes you love yourself more rather than less, that makes you love the people around you more rather than less, and makes you love God more rather than less. That adult love is the strongest kind in the end. And in the end, as Jesus said, there isn’t anything greater than that. And in that world, there is always more love to be had.
We are never told how the lawyer responded. Amid all the laws, did he find the kind of love Jesus was talking about? Maybe we are not told because we are all kind of like that lawyer in the push and pull of life. We only find out how the story ends by living our own lives and making our own choice about what we love and how we love it. So may you receive all the love that God has for you with open hearts, and may it grow and mature in you as you answer it with your own love. Day-by-day may it lead us to love ourselves and one another more and more undiminished and without shame. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet