Speaker: Michelle Burkholder
It is a season of questions, debates, and expressions of opinions. I suppose if we are honest, all of life is that season – it is part of being human and in relationship to share our ideas and feelings with each other. Debates, in theory, help us test the waters of what we believe and why. Questions asked and answered help us expand our understanding of ourselves and each other. This is discourse in action.
Discourse is an age old teaching tool. Discourse itself is also about relationship – it is about the relationship between written or spoken language and it’s context. To understand the definition of a word or concept is one thing – to understand the meaning and implications of that word or concept in action – in context – is another type of knowledge.
Some of the complexities of being in relationship with each other are rooted in our different ways of understanding words and concepts in context. We may have a similar baseline understanding for the definition of a word or concept – yet when those words or concepts take on a life of their own in practice – the paths of our experiences with them can be synchronous or divergent.
Hence the gift and challenge of debates, questions, and opinions. These tools allow us to share our experiences with each other and invite each other to stretch in our understandings opening up the possibility of making space for growth or even change. They can also be used as tools of manipulation, distraction, and trickery.
When we encounter Jesus in the Matthew text from today, we find Jesus in the heart of a debate. The religious leaders and scholars of the day are working hard to get Jesus to use Jesus’ own words against him to sway public opinion away from regarding him as a prophet. They bait him with intentionally sticky questions. Last week Cindy explored the question posed about authority and power belonging to God or human government. The lectionary, this year, skips over the question of who is married to whom in the resurrection, instead jumping ahead to this week’s question:
“Teacher, which commandment of the Law is the greatest?”
This may not sound like a tricky question to our ears, however, it was tricky in the sense that it was one particular religious group’s opinion (in this case the Pharisees) that they had a grasp on the answer to this (lest we even begin to suggest that it is a Jewish religious phenomenon to have differing sects of belief vying for a stronghold on truth – this is not so different from now when different denominations or even faiths squabble over standards of belief and practices) if Jesus as a prominent and respected teacher of the day explicitly affirmed their idea – they would then be able to hold sway over all other religious parties. Ha ha – we have it right!
Jesus, being well-versed in the scriptures and traditions of his people answers quickly:
“‘You must love the Most High God
with all your heart,
with all your soul and
with all your mind.’
“That is the greatest and first commandment.
And, he goes on to add:
The second is like it: ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’
This second commandment is not unfamiliar to the crowd. This command also comes from Torah law. We heard it today in the Leviticus text:
You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am God.
What is most likely surprising to the gathered crowd is the pairing of the two commands in such close association. They would be in total agreement that loving God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind is indeed the highest priority. Yet Jesus is clear – you must love God and you must love your neighbor, and yourself. Jesus expands the command to love God to include loving the people of God as part of how that love of God is expressed in the world. By pairing these two ideas – Jesus refuses to reduce the heart of the law to a simple adherence to a single commandment to love God. Instead, Jesus includes our relationships with ourselves and each other as a critical part of living out our love for God.
And, Jesus goes on to say:
On these two commandments the whole Law is based – and the Prophets as well.
And there we have it – his final answer: love.
It all comes back to love.
Every technical detail of the law, all of the codes, and commandments, all of the wisdom, council, and vision offered to God’s people in the world about how to be God’s people in the world is rooted in love.
Residing within that simple answer are all of the complexities that come with living love out. Which puts us right back in the cycle of debates, questions, and opinions. Because a base definition of love is hard enough to come up with, not to mention including the variety of different ways that living love looks in different contexts. And the definition of love when it comes to God’s love is even more expansive.
Love in the context of God – has more to do with action instead of emotion. The most often used word for love in the New Testament is Agape – which is a different kind of love than the passionate desire of the Eros love that our culture likes to promote. The Agape love at the root of these commandments, writes Clayton Schmidt, Provost of Lutheran Theological Seminary: “can be called loving-kindness. It is not passive emotion, but active mercy. It is marked by patience and generosity, again, both acts generated by the one who loves. In short, loving is a choice, not a feeling.”
Love, then, is choices of mercy, patience, generosity, justice, and loving kindness in action – in and through relationship. It is a possibility of how we might treat each other, ourselves, and God. And the choices I am speaking about here are not whether we will or will not choose to share love in and through our lives (that’s a whole different choice/conversation) – these choices are about how we share love in the world – how we choose to move and live in each moment of life as we are constantly in relationship with God, ourselves, and others.
The scriptures offer some specifics of what this kind of love looks like in action – the Leviticus text talks about what loving our neighbor might mean in different contexts:
- Not being corrupt in administering justice
- Not showing partiality to the poor, or honoring the great (note this isn’t about not working on meeting the essential needs of people – it is about how we embrace equity in our attitudes toward people)
- Refraining from slandering others
- Not profiting by the blood of others
- Not nursing hatred
- If you are angry – speak frankly about it – to avoid storing up ill feelings – (note it says nothing about not being angry – being angry is part of love – how we hold that anger is also part of love)
- Not seeking revenge
- Not holding grudges against relatives
I’m struck when reading through these about how these concepts are expressed – don’t do this, refrain from that, no, no, no. It’s hard for my overly optimistic ears to hear these without getting bogged down by the negative nature of this language. And so my practice is to try to translate these don’ts and nos into the underlying concepts they point to so that I can begin to embrace action instead of feeling stalled by inaction. If those are things that do not show love – what is it saying does show love?
Here is some of what I hear active love looks like in that list:
These are not necessarily easy arenas of action – yet I hear in them invitations to engage in choices that are life-giving. That is indeed what this section of Leviticus is about – it is part of what is called the Holiness Code – it is written instructions on how to maintain order so that life can thrive. It may be written as a set of rules about what not to do – yet what it is getting at is instilling within us the call to love God by working for the good of our neighbors, which, in turn, is also good for ourselves because it brings forward and honors the presence of the Holy which is in each of us.
And that work is the work of everyone.
Listen to the first verse of Leviticus 19 again:
God told Moses to tell the entire Israelite community these things
These words of instruction are given to the whole community – not just the priests – this is the work of everybody for the well-being of everyone.
“‘You must love the Most High God
with all your heart,
with all your soul and
with all your mind.’
‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Following these instructions takes work. It takes intentionality to make choices and take actions that are rooted in love. It takes practice. And it isn’t the type of work that you practice at in order to get better – although it may come easier the more we live into it. Living love towards God, self, and others is a life practice. It is not something we learn and perfect – it is something we live. It is something we both succeed at and struggle with. It is a practice that we root ourselves in and act out of as we make choices and take action in our living and in our relationships.
The practice is thinking with and choosing love – active, agape love, as we move from moment to moment. It is like overlaying a filter on our interactions with the world – not a filter that blocks our vision or understanding – a filter that reveals the imprint of the Holy on everything – calling us to attention and inviting us to act with love. And what it means to choose and act with love may mean different things for different people in different contexts. There are no set specified actions to take when living out love – there is only a commitment to lean into our living with every fiber of our being focused on what it means in that moment for life to thrive.
Sometimes we are living out love towards God and neighbors on a grand scale – working for systemic changes and collaborating with community partners to support diverse needs. Casting ballots that voice our commitment to love. Sometimes we are living out love towards neighbors on a small scale – interactions with friends and family, or encounters with individuals we work with or come in contact with – in person or virtually – as we move through our day. Sometimes we are the neighbors in need of love – and we must open ourselves up to receiving support from the community – or perhaps we might need to choose to extend gracious space to ourselves. All of these arenas are spaces of practice in which we can pause, remind ourselves to look upon the scene through the filter of holy memory and awareness, and choose love in the moment allowing it to guide our interactions as we navigate relationships with ourselves and each other on a daily basis.
Loving God with heart, soul, and mind and loving neighbor as self happens in and through relationship with God, each other, and ourselves – it is a practice of loving-kindness, generosity, and compassion, and a willingness to stretch and grow as we consider and encounter each moment in context. All practices ebb and flow with struggle and success so when the inevitable questions, debates, and opinions overwhelm our thinking distracting us from choosing and acting on that which is life-giving – Jesus has given us a centering hint: it all comes back to lov