The Pharisees huddled in a corner of the temple trying to structure a question that would trip up Jesus. Finally they thought they had it: “Teacher, which is the great commandment of the law?” They were going to give him just enough rope to hang himself. They were to let him talk, and then, whatever he said, pick him apart like the front runner in a GOP presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas.
According to Jewish tradition, the Torah contained a total of 613 distinct commandments. It seemed a foolproof trap: kind of like asking an attorney what's the most important of the twenty-seven amendments to the constitution? If you say the First Amendment (freedom of speech, the press, religion, and right to assemble), you immediately will be attacked: "What about the Fifth Amendment? Don't you think it's important to have due process if you're accused of crime? Do you support the right of government to just throw someone in jail because they don't like their political views?" If you say the 19th Amendment which as we all know gave women the right to vote, you'd be attacked: "You think that's more important than the 13th Amendment? The one that abolished slavery in the United States?" Jesus knew what they were up to. He said, in essence, “You missed it again, guys. It really takes two commandments to make the great commandment.”
He started with what is called the Shema. They all knew it – all pious Jews had to recite the Shema, a quote from Deuteronomy 6, twice a day:
Hear, O Israel: the lord is our God, the lord alone. You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.The love of God has priority over everything else. Jesus takes that memorized set of verses they recited twice a day and extends it. He says the commandment to love your neighbor is like unto that first commandment, making it equally the greatest commandment. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" from Leviticus 19:18 is preceded by, "You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people," then comes, "but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It seems like Jesus is explaining that to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we can't be filling our hearts with grudges against others. Our lists of wrongs take up precious space where we need to be absorbing the infinite goodness of God. I think Jesus wants us to see that we are taking up precious "soul space" with grudges... space within us that could be used to hold God instead.
So how do you know if you love God? Teresa of Avila once said, “We cannot know whether we love God, although there may be strong reason for thinking so, but there can be no doubt about whether we love our neighbor or not.” 1 John. 4:20, 21 says, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also."
It's an easy concept, but how do you do it? How do you go about loving your neighbor in the real world? C. S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity talks about how to do this practically:
Do not waste your time bothering whether you ‘love' your neighbor, act as if you did. As soon as we do this, we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.In 2002, a newspaper report said that German police were investigating reports of screams coming from an apartment in the town of Offenbach found a 76-year-old woman practicing for a yodeling diploma. The police statement said, “The officers weren’t able to judge whether the neighbors were unfamiliar with Bavarian folk music, or whether the lady still requires a lot of practice.
We won't always love our neighbor perfectly, but we can practice, and the feelings will follow.
So we understand we're supposed to love God, and we get the point that we do that by loving our neighbor, but so often we skip over the last part of what Jesus said: "…love your neighbor as yourself." On the surface it seems natural to say that of course we love ourselves. We certainly have selfish motivations. I want my own way. We do things that feel good to us, no matter how they hurt other people. But I wonder if most of us truly love ourselves in the sense of accepting ourselves as we are – our good parts… and our broken pieces. We say such terrible things to ourselves: "What's wrong with me? Why am I so stupid? It's my own fault!" We look at others, and we just automatically assume they're happier than we are, their marriages are better, they don't have the same worries we do. But all of us carry around terrible burdens on our hearts. I guarantee you the person sitting next to you in the pew is carrying some kind of burden on her or his heart that you don't know about. But if we were just a little bit gentler to ourselves, maybe we'd realize that everyone is carrying the same burdens… burdens of their own… and then we could be gentler to them. So many people are hurting. If we broaden our definition of neighbor, we might see it.
When I was teaching, I used to tell my students they were all my favorites. I'd say, "Sally gets to pass out papers because she's my favorite," and then ten minutes later, I'd say, "Mark gets to be first in the lunch line because he's my favorite." Someone would always say, "Hey, I thought you said Sally was your favorite!" and I smile and say, "She is." And they’d look at me as if to say, "You're the weirdest teacher we've ever had,"…and they were right.
I had a student once named Ian, and that boy was a pain. He never did his homework; he always had an excuse. He never turned anything in on time, and everything was sloppy and half completed. Ian got to be my "favorite" a lot, I think because he really wasn't… and I felt guilty about that. Part of the population of my school came from the daily motels and rundown small houses scattered around the edges of downtown Reno. Around Thanksgiving, my school would collect enough food to create boxes of entire Thanksgiving dinners for poor students, and then we would go out on Thanksgiving eve and deliver them. Ian's house was on our schedule that year. We pulled up to the curb, and there was this rundown house sitting in the middle of a mud field. Ian was just standing there in the middle of the mud field huddled in his coat. It was a miserable, cold day, and it was getting dark, and I assumed Ian was playing outside, but he didn't look like he was playing – he was just kind of standing there. I carried the box of Thanksgiving dinner across the mud, trying not to think about was happening to my dress shoes. I tried to be cheerful, "Ian!" I said, "We’ve brought you Thanksgiving dinner!" He looked as excited as if I had told him he'd just won a trip to Disneyland. Then I found out why he was standing in the middle that field. He said, "I'm not supposed to go into the house until my dad gets home, but there's a broken window in the back, and I can let you in." We went up to the house. There was a pitiful old dog chained in the mud. Ian reached through the broken window in the back and opened the door. The house had maybe three tiny cold rooms. Ian told me I could set the box of food on the heater – it was a big square standalone thing in the center of the living room with a bare pipe running into the wall. I said, "Ian, I don't think it's a good idea to set a cardboard box on your heater." Ian cheerfully replied, "That's okay it hasn't worked since last year." I trudged back through the mud to my car and all I could think was, "God forgive me for not understanding the burden this little boy was carrying." After that, whenever I said Ian was my favorite… I meant it.
When you think of things that are holy, what you think of? The altar? This church? The water in the font? Rarely, does the thought of your neighbor enter your mind first. C. S. Lewis said, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal ... But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors ... Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
The great painter and sculptor Michelangelo once bought a piece of inferior-looking granite which no one else would buy. Asked why he'd bought it he said, "Because there's an angel in there, and I must set it free." When Michelangelo was working on a sculpture, he didn't use the usual method of working on the figure from all sides. Michelangelo used to work from the front and carve back so that the figure emerged, as if it had been trapped in the stone, as if he was freeing it. Michelangelo looked at the piece of granite, which no one else wanted, and saw an angel needing to be set free. God looks at us, and sees our fears and our limitations, the things which lock us in. God also sees our abilities, our inner beauty, our potential. God sees the angel inside us waiting to be set free. God is the sculptor who brings forth our true created selves. As we open ourselves to God, allowing that sculpting to take place, we become aware of that beauty within ourselves… and within others.
When you read about the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34, you learn he never made it to the Promised Land; he only got to look over at it. What you think of when you think the Promised Land? Milk and honey? Rest? Peace? So many of us are like Moses. We look over at the Promised Land, but we don't cross into it. Don't be like Moses. Don't just look over into the Promised Land. Cross the Jordan. Go into that good land. When one thinks of the Promised Land, one big thought that comes to my mind is a land where holy and just people live – a people who are loving and compassionate toward each other. They see the burdens each other is carrying and, day by day, they try in small ways, to lighten their load.
There is a road that God has built that leads into the Promised Land, but the road often passes by dilapidated houses sitting in the middle of mud fields, and broken windows, and heaters that don't work, and little kids huddled into their coats. It passes by heartaches that we carry inside ourselves that no one else sees, but we pray that someone else… some day… will see.
There is a road that God has built that leads into the Promised Land. It starts at your front door… but it leads… it leads through your neighbor's yard.