Pentecost 19A Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Matthew 22:34-46
At the beginning of the movie, Love Actually, the voice of the character who plays the British Prime Minister has a little speech about love:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at the Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed. But I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it is not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there—fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge—they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you’ll find love actually is all around.”
Love is one of those over used words. It is used so much in fact that it is almost hollow and can be filled up with whatever meaning we want or need for it to be. Romantic love. Patriotic love. Parental love. Dysfunctional love. Self love. Sometimes, there are things we label as love that are about as far as can be imagined from what love actually is. Abuse, neglect, hurt with a veneer of love to make it acceptable. Obsession or cruelty veiled as love. Sometimes it is easy to be cynical about love altogether. What’s love got to do with it, as Tina Turner once sang, what’s love but a second hand emotion?
However, there is something to that quote from the movie. On September 11th there were many phone calls placed from the various airplanes involved in the attack and none of them were messages of anger or hatred. Pretty much all of them were messages of love. Love for families and friends, spouses and children. In the face of great danger and fear the thought that came to mind was love.
Love seems to also be on Jesus’ mind as well, despite the arguing and debating that he has been drug into in the past week or so of his ministry, his mind is on love. Of all the many laws there are for him to choose from when answering the question put to him today, it is love he lifts up. In this week of his life, of all weeks, it is love he gives, even to those who do not love him.
Since we do not always hear the gospel text reading in chronological order each week, it may easily slip past us that our story for today is actually set in the last week of Jesus’ life. The conflict between himself and many of the chief leaders of the day has been steadily growing in intensity. Jesus is on a direct line for the cross. He has been challenged every step and this encounter will be pretty much the last public debate in which he will engage before his death. And he knows his death is coming. He has been telling his disciples about it all along the way. Torture and death loom ahead unavoidably in his path. And yet today he speaks of love.
A lawyer—a particular expert in the Jewish law—asks Jesus which of all the laws is the greatest. Now there are many laws in the Old Testament, mostly in Leviticus, and while some seem trivial to us, others do not. Laws against murder, for example, and against stealing and lying all seem pretty important. Do no harm, so to speak, might be a good summary of these. Do not harm others. A good rule of thumb, in fact. Jesus could have said that. He could have chosen any of those really good laws. But he didn’t. While ‘do no harm’ is a perfectly good way to live, Jesus seems to think the way of life God wishes for and has given to his people, is something greater than this.
God says his people are to be holy. Actually, God say, ‘you will be holy.’ It is less command and more statement of fact. You will be holy because I, your God, am holy.
The laws Jesus chooses as the most important, as summaries of the whole law, are found in places where there are lists of the law just like our Old Testament lesson for today. God tells Moses to speak to the people of God and say to them, ‘you will be holy for I am holy.’ And then he begins a list of what it looks like to be holy, including among other things, being just, not being partial to anyone, not to speak ill of others, not to take vengeance but to, instead, love your neighbor as yourself. To be holy is to love your neighbor.
In other parts of Leviticus there are even fuller, broader instructions that indicate that the “alien” or the people who are different from you are also those whom you are to love. The other commandment Jesus quotes is in another section of the law but the belief that you should love God with all your heart, mind, and soul is throughout the law and pretty much all of scripture. You shall be holy as God is holy. To be holy is to love. The two greatest things in the law according to Jesus are to love God with your very being and love the other as well as you love your very self. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
That last bit is interesting and we don’t often pay much attention to it…all the law and the prophets. The law, more than just a list of thou shalts and shalt nots, was a description of what the faithful do. You shall be holy because I, your God am holy…. and this is what that looks like; thus the laws describing a holy people’s life. But what about the prophets? What do the prophets have to do with all this?
It is very difficult to think of the prophets and love in the same sentence. Prophets do not seem very loving and, in fact, often seem very harsh, angry, sad or even crazy. Love is low on the list of words that pop into your mind when you say Prophet. But Jesus clearly thinks these two commandments about love are the things upon which the prophets hang. How can this be?
The law describes what the life of God’s people can look like, but the prophets are the call to return to God. They are the reminder that when we fail at being who we are called to be (and the people of the Old Testament, Jesus followers, the early church, all of us and everyone else into the future till Jesus comes again will all fail) there is a way back. Love is not only the heart, the centerpiece of the law, it is the way back when we fail.
Maybe what the Beetles say is true—maybe all we need is love.
So what does all the love business mean anyway? Does it mean we have to like everyone? Does it mean we have to be ‘nice’ to everybody even if we don’t want to? Not only is that hard, it is nearly impossible.
When I saw that today’s texts were about love, I was not looking forward to preaching about this topic. Sometimes, love is just not something you want to think or deal with. My mother died just over a moth ago and love is low on the emotions I’m interested in exploring at the moment. I don’t think I’m unique in this feeling in fact, I think that we all have times in our lives when the last thing in the world we want to do is to think about how to love God and love our neighbor. Life is full of moments and even stretches of time when the emotion of love is the furthest thing from our hearts.
But the kind of love Jesus is talking about isn’t just an emotion but an action. We equate love with emotion and think of it in terms of love being more intense than like. Both like and love are often things we feel spontaneously. We might like chocolate, or in my case I love chocolate, but it is a spontaneous thing. I don’t plan to love chocolate it just happens. We don’t really choose it, it just occurs.
However, the kind of love Jesus is taking about is not strictly an emotional, involuntary response. This kind of love, agape love, is not an impulsive, involuntary emotion but an active response we choose to have. God’s love for us is active. God does not love us involuntarily or impulsively. God chooses us and loves us actively.
Primarily the kind of love Jesus tells us we should have is not a passive involuntary emotion but an active merciful kindness. It is patient and generous. Loving is a choice—a choice of how to respond to others. Just think of trying to love God with all our heart, mind and soul when we think of this love as only a spontaneous feeling. Seems nearly impossible. So, too, is loving our neighbor or strangers, much less the even greater thing Jesus calls us to at another place in the gospels, loving our enemy. But this kind of love is something that we must take an active role in, choosing to love even when it seems unlikely or difficult. Choosing to be patent, kind, generous, merciful. Choosing to treat others with the same kind of actions we would wish to receive.
And even when we cannot rise to these commandments, which there are always times we will fall short, God loves us with the same patient, kind, generous and merciful love. God forgives us when we cannot love and gives us the ability to love. We love because God first loved us. If God says that we are going to be holy because he is holy and the centerpiece of holy is love, then we love because God loves. It is not our will to love God and our neighbor alone that gives us the ability to do this but God’s love for us, loving through us.
In this last week of Jesus’ life, he chooses to talk about love even to those who are not demonstrating love. He will go to the cross for them, for all of us, not because we loved him but because he loves us. He will die for love of us. Love will resurrect him from the dead.
You will be holy because I, your God, am holy. You will love because I, your God, love you.