I thought I’d begin by saying, “As I get older;” but then I remembered a friend of mine whose wife told him, “You’re not getting older. You’re just old.” So I decided not to say that.
From the perspective of my advanced years, it seems to me that one of the most unfortunate characteristics of many religious people is that they spend so much time talking about religious rules and regulations. They seem mostly concerned about who’s “in” and who’s “out”, who’s saved and who’s not, who’ll make it to heaven and who won’t. It gets very complicated and sometimes very nasty.
In this afternoon’s scripture, Jesus was surrounded by exactly the same kind of religious arguments. The folks around him were arguing about whether or not it is right for religious people to pay taxes to the government, and who’s going to be married to whom in the resurrection. Then one of the religious men, in an effort to pin Jesus to the wall, asked him what may have been the toughest question of all.
“What is the most important of all the commandments in our religious laws?”
Jesus never hesitated. Perhaps he was relieved that someone had finally asked a question that had some substance to it. This was his immediate reply:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul,
and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a
second is like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two
commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Accordiing to Jesus, what’s absolutely essential is loving God, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. Those three relationships–with God, with our neighbors, and with ourselves– sum up everything that’s ever been said or written about God’s will for the world.
So what does it mean to love God? What does it mean to love anyone? One of the most important things I’ve learned in the many years I’ve lived is that love is not basically an emotion. There are, of course, emotions, very strong emotions, connected with loving; but, at its core, love is not basically an emotion. If love were based on emotions, what would happen when we find ourselves, as we often do, vexed or even angry with our husbands or wives or kids, the ones we have promised to love, the ones whom we keep saying we do love?
- Our way of treating them would then go up and down like the ocean’s tides.
- If love were primarily an emotion there would be no dependability to our relationships.
- How we treat those whom we love would depend on our mood at any given moment.
But love is not primarily an emotion. Love is a decision we make, and have to re-make again and again. Love is a choice we make about whom and what we will allow to be important to us. Based on those decisions, our love then becomes something we do.
Psychiatrist Dr. Scott Peck, author of the massively popular book, The Road Less Traveled, says that the first rule of love is to give attention. To love is to choose to pay attention to those whom we love, allowing who they are and what they think and say, to be important to us. Dr. Peck goes on to say that the most important part of paying attention is to listen.
Maybe you know that. You’ve probably noticed when people really listen to you. They listen intently so it registers with you that who you are and what you think are important. You know when you experience it: To be paid attention to, to be listened to, is to be loved.
What if we used that understanding of love to guide us in what it means to love God?
- What if loving God with all our hearts and souls and minds were to mean giving careful and personal attention to what is important to God, to listen to him?
- What if we allowed God’s thoughts to be the important truths as we seek to understand life and how we should live it, even on the days when we’re feeling lousy or sad?
- On that foundation, our decision to love God would then become an action: doing what God calls us to do. Jesus says we show our love for God by loving our neighbors.
I believe that if I did that, I’d be loving God with all my heart, soul, and mind—letting his revealed truth be more important to me than anything else, more than the latest fads or the prevailing political correctness or my own changing emotional dispositions. Loving God means choosing to listen to what he says and then doing it: loving my fellow human beings.
Jesus says that the second of the greatest commandments is like the first. We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s the heart of what God wants. That’s why God put his creation together. That’s why we’re here. God wants a world in which all of his human creatures receive and trust his love—and then share that love with each other.
Oddly enough, I think this is a commandment which most of us DO obey, often unwittingly, and often destructively; and yet, surprising as it may seem, I think we do obey it. Most of the time most of us DO love our neighbors as we love ourselves. The problem is that much of the time we don’t love ourselves all that much–or as we should. Just think about it.
- Think about those times when you’ve been ugly or unkind to the people around you, even people in your own family; how were you feeling about yourself at that moment?
- When we’re cutting and cruel to others, we usually trying to prove to the world and to ourselves how smart or tough we are. We try to prove it because we don’t believe it.
- The people who mistreat others may have a bold and confident exterior, but they almost always have a secret rage boiling on the inside—a rage against themselves.
So we have to go back to the beginning: the first step in loving God is to listen to him, to trust what he says; and Jesus’ central message is that GOD LOVES US! And not just the religious people. “For God so loved the world.”
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says specifically that God causes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good and causes his rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous. God doesn’t deal with us according to what we deserve but on the basis of who he is. God is love, and God loves us. To believe in Jesus of Nazareth is to trust that we are loved.
“Faith is never a habit; faith is a decision that must be made again and again.”
- Very often, certainly in every crisis, we need to make that faith decision again, to trust the great mystery of the Gospel: “I am a loved, forgiven, and precious child of God.”
- Trusting that we are loved, forgiven, and precious, we are much more likely to treat others as loved, forgiven, and precious children of God also. That’s how it works.
When we trust that we are loved, then it follows that loving our neighbors as we love ourselves will create the kind of world God wants. When that happens, we have a glimpse of what it means for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is the basic message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: what God wants is a world in which the people he loves go on to love each other, living together in communities of love.
We are to love our neighbors as ourselves; but, you might ask, “Just who is my neighbor?” Well, on another occasion, in the midst of another series of religious debates in which Jesus’ adversaries were trying to trap him, that very question was asked; and Jesus answered it by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. The conclusion of that parable is that the “neighbor” is, by definition, the one who shows mercy. Being a neighbor has nothing to do with nationality, religion, color, or class. Being a neighbor means sharing the mercy God gives to us with whomever we happen to encounter who needs mercy.
The question rages today within the denomination of which I’ve been a part all my life as to whether or not lesbians and gays should be ordained for ministry in Christ’s Church. Many devoutly religious people within that denomination are adament in their conviction that the Bible expressly condems homosexuality as a sin; and, therefore, gays and lesbians must not be ordained for Christian ministry. I have a different view of the biblical message.
In the biblical days there was no word for homosexuality. They didn’t know it even existed. They knew about sexual perversion, of course, but sexual perversion happens more often between heterosexuals than it does between homosexuals. Using other people for our own personal gratification is a sin; but it is not a sin that belongs only to homosexuals.
Even more importantly, in today’s scripture, Jesus says clearly that “all the law and the prophets,” everything that has ever been thought, written, or said about God’s purposes, is enclosed within these two greatest commandments: choosing to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, showing mercy.
- If God commands me to be a neighbor, to be merciful, to whomever is in need of mercy, surely that includes, among many others, the lesbians and gays in our society.
- Todays’ medical community is quite clear that homosexual people have not chosen their sexual orientation any more than I have chosen mine. That’s just how they are made.
- If I dare to believe that God has given gifts for ministry to me, how can I deny that God has given gifts of ministry to lesbians and gays? They’re God’s creations as much as I am.
Jesus does not give us the option of choosing whom we will treat with mercy and compassion or whom we should love. God’s purposes depend on my loving my neighbors, whomever those neighbors may be, as I love myself, in the same way that God loves me.
One time Jesus said,
“He who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who
built his house upon a rock.”
Throughout his ministry Jesus consistently put his emphasis on listening to what God says and then DOING it.
It’s not, finally, a question of who repeats the most religious cliches or recites the most correct creeds. We’re not called to spend our time arguing about who’s going to heaven and who isn’t. All that strikes me as mostly a lot of rationalization to allow us to feel secure that we’ve got life’s mysteries all figured out and wrapped up in a neat little religious package, a package that proves that I and my beliefs are “in” and whoever disagrees with me is “out.”
I will never, in this world, understand all the mysteries of life. But what God calls me to do is very simple to understand, not at all simple to do, but simple to understand. What matters, finally, is that we hear what God is saying to us in Jesus Chist and DO it. We are called to DO something: to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
That’s it. Jesus says that life’s not about rules; it’s about loving relationships.\
Bob Ball is an honorably retired PC(USA) pastor.