During this Lenten season, we’re considering five building blocks for our Christian discipleship and for the faithful mission of Christ’s Church that come to us from three passages of Scripture. In them, Jesus gives to us the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and the New Commandment. Last week, our focus was on what Jesus calls the first and greatest commandment, reiterating the Old Testament, that we are to love God.
Today, we consider the command which Jesus says is of the same importance as loving God. Please turn again to Matthew 22:36-40 (page 692 in the sanctuary Bible).
It says that a Pharisee approached Jesus with a question:
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."“Love your neighbor as yourself” was not a commandment that Jesus just made up. It’s not a new commandment. In Leviticus 19:18, part of that section of the Old Testament referred to as “the holiness code,” God told His ancient people Israel: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.”
From the beginning, God intended human beings to live in a community of shalom--a community of peace and wholeness--with God and with other human beings.
This comes through in Genesis, after the first murder had taken place. The blood--the very life--of Abel cried out to God after Abel had been murdered by his brother Cain. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain responded with words that must have broken God’s heart: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” For God, the answer to that question was, has always been, and always will remain “Yes.”
We are called to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Human beings may sometimes crave and need solitude. Even Jesus would sometimes pull away from the needy crowds in order to rest and pray in the presence of God the Father. But we are not made to live outside of loving community with others.
In the Old Testament, God commanded His people to, first of all, love and care for their fellow Israelites, especially the weak, the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned.
But they were also to extend precisely that same love to the “resident aliens,” the foreigners who lived among them. God told the Israelites through Moses in Deuteronomy 10:19: “...you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (There's a lesson to be learned there for those of us who are descendants of people who were at one time foreigners in what is now the United States of America.)
And even in Old Testament times, God commanded that His people love their enemies. (This may surprise those who support the stereotype that the God of Old Testament is stern and vengeful, while the God of the New Testament is mooshy. Neither stereotype is true.) Proverbs 25:21, for example, says: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.”
The Pharisee who asked Jesus about what the greatest commandment was had hoped to trap Jesus, showing to be some wild-eyed leader of a cult, introducing notions about God different from what God had revealed of Himself and His will through the centuries to Israel, as recorded in what we call the Old Testament.
But far from trapping Jesus, the Pharisee who asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was, found Jesus upholding the very law and the prophets--the Old Testament canon--which they claimed Jesus threatened.
Jesus underscored the central importance of love of brother and sister or love of neighbor, repeatedly. In Luke 10 for example, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a foreigner who happened upon a man who had been beaten by thugs, helps the man, cares for him, and provides for him. Jesus says that whoever we come across in need is our neighbor and that we are to love them.
Under the influence both of his time with Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle John wrote in his later years in 1 John 4:20: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (How's that for directness?)
But one thing we should be clear about is that from the Bible’s perspective, love is not primarily a feeling. Feelings of affection come and go. They fluctuate in intensity. Love, the Bible insists, is something different.
There’s an old preacher story told about a young man in love. (I've updated a little bit so that I don't seem hopelessly ancient!) This guy texts his girlfriend: “I would climb the highest mountain for you. I would swim the deepest ocean. I’d cross the Mojave Desert. I would even go to a Justin Bieber concert. I would do anything for you. By the way, I’ll be over tonight if it doesn’t rain too much.”
His girlfriend may have wondered how much he really loved her, not because his words were so objectionable but because his commitment to the deeds of love seemed questionable.
The Bible does say that our love for others must be rendered from our hearts, meaning that we should be intent on loving others and not render acts of love resentfully or with selfish ulterior motives.
But love isn't primarily an emotion. And it's not just words. Love is a verb.
It’s about the good we do for others, even when we don’t feel like doing it.
Jesus‘ earthly brother James writes in James 2:14-17: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” Where is our faith if we don't love others? Where is our love?
We can claim to love our neighbors--from the people who occupy the same homes in which we live to the victims of poverty, calamity, or despotism in foreign countries--but unless that sentiment is backed by deeds of self-sacrifice and compassion, our claims will be hollow and without meaning.
The most famous portrait of love in the Bible probably is the so-called “love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. It’s often read at weddings, although the original issues Paul was addressing when he wrote to the Christians in first-century Corinth included the pride that some in the church had because they’d been given the gift of tongues and the arrogance of the wealthier members toward those with less.
Yet it does bear relevance to any discussion about love.
Take a look at part of it now with me, please. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (page 800). It says:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”I have to tell you that when I consider that portrait of love, I feel ashamed.
I do not measure up.
More often than not, I don’t love my neighbor as I love myself. I am self-absorbed and often selfish. I’m not always patient or kind. And I often watch news reports about people who are hurting in other places and don’t even muster enough compassion to pray for them. (A friend of mine always prays when a squad passes by and I find it hard even to remember to do that!)
Yet, here today we again confront Jesus’ command that we love others as we love ourselves. It is a core element in God’s will for us all, summarizing the second table of the Ten Commandments.
It’s part of the law written on every human heart.
And, I don’t keep this commandment.
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says that it’s instructive to notice where in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus gives the Great Commandment.
The Pharisee’s question was more or less a last ditch effort to derail Jesus’ credibility among His fellow Judeans. But Jesus gave an answer to which no one could object.
And then, Jesus asks a question of them: “What do you think about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They reply without hesitation: “The Son of David.” Then, we’re told in Matthew 22:43-46:
“[Jesus] said to them, 'How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him "Lord"? For he says, '"'The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet." If then David calls him "Lord," how can he be his son?' No one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”The Pharisees, who had wanted to stump Jesus, were now stumped themselves. They could marshall no evidence warranting Jesus’ death. So, in order to get rid of Him--in order to get rid of the authority of God over their lives and their religious fiefdoms, they would have to resort to trumping up fake evidence to put Jesus on the executioner’s cross. That’s exactly what they did.
But in doing so, of course, they played into Jesus’ hands.
This One Who perfectly loved God and loved neighbor and Who was the Messiah called Lord by King David multiple centuries earlier had come for the express purpose of living out His love for us by dying on the cross, the perfect sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus lived the love He commands. He demonstrated that He is the Messiah, the King above all kings, by doing love’s ultimate deed, taking the punishment for sin you and I deserve so that when we repent for sin and believe in Him, we have everlasting life with God.
And He gives the righteousness that He lived--including the righteous obedience of the command to love others as we love ourselves--to all who believe in Him. Jesus gives His perfect obedience to us and then pours God's Holy Spirit into all with faith in Him.
Through Jesus then, N.T. Wright says, having been made right with God not by our deeds of love, but by Jesus’ deed of love rendered on the cross, we see that the Great Commandment--to love God and love neighbor--isn’t so much an order “to be obeyed in our own strength”--which we can not do anyway--but an invitation and a promise to new way of life.
The God Who claims us as His own by grace through our faith in Christ will, as we daily call on Him to be in our lives, give us “a new way of life in which, bit by bit, hatred and pride can be left behind and love can become [a larger and larger] reality [in our lives].”
During our recent study of Ole Hallesby's book, Prayer, we noticed that the content of our prayer in Jesus' Name isn't as important that in praying in Jesus' Name, we invite Jesus into our lives and circumstances.
We may approach God with a perceived need or desire. But in responding to Jesus' call and command to pray, we actually are inviting Him in to do what He deems best in our lives. Give Jesus an inch and He will take a mile! As we pray in Jesus' Name, He takes up residence in our lives, usually with consequences we couldn't imagine, most especially consequences for our faith, our characters, and our priorities.
The simple fact is that we cannot love our neighbor unless we first let Jesus love us into following Him and surrendering to Him.
But as we dare to let Jesus into our lives each day--when we let Him know our dreams and our sins, our fears and our personal challenges and invite Him to be Lord over all our lives, to transform all our lives in accordance with the will of God--He will gradually, often without our even knowing it, usually without our even knowing it, help us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Not just in words and not just in feelings, but in deeds and in living.
Jesus comes to live in the lives of all who call on Him and as we call on Him, both we and all the people with whom we come in contact are the better for it.
Our call is to let Jesus in, so that His love can go from us to all the world. Amen