Today’s Gospel brings us to another in a series of tests of Jesus. We heard one last week when Jesus was asked by the Pharisees whether it was okay to pay taxes to Caesar or not. This test appears to be relatively straightforward: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Yet Jesus does an amazing thing in his answer. He uses the tradition, a response from Deuteronomy about loving God and a response from Leviticus regarding the love of neighbor, and marries them. Now loving God and loving neighbor become inseparable. No longer can one love God in private. To be in right relationship to God we must also be in right relationship to our neighbor.
Let’s now back up a bit and look more closely at what is at play here. When the Pharisees ask this question of Jesus, they and Jesus know well that over time 613 different commandments had been enumerated in the tradition. They were not equally weighty, however. Each rabbi had his own way of ordering the precepts of the Torah, thereby reflecting his personal theology.
If I were to ask each of you, “What do you believe is the purpose of your life in Jesus,” your answer would reflect something of your personal theology, your way of approaching God and faithfulness. The same thing is operative here. So when Jesus responds to the query with Dt. 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and then says it is the greatest and the second from Leviticus is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” it reflects his personal religious bias. He is saying also that the other 611 all hang on these two!
What do these two commandments, apparently the center of Jesus’ own theology, tell us? First, love God. This is not merely a feeling or about affection, although it might include that. This is primarily about our will and what we are willing to act upon. This is about our life and how we order it. To love with all our heart, mind and soul means to do so with all of who we are: time, intentions, finances, business, vestry, family and anything else you can think of.
The community of faith, what we call the Church, exists primarily to prepare the ground for worship and create an environment for holiness in the ordering of our life. The implications for the Pharisees in Jesus’ answer are that they are not merely to study the Torah, but they are to become the Torah. For us, we are not merely to study the Bible, but become the Bible. We are not just to come to worship, but become a worshipful being. We are not to only partake in bread and wine, but become Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ for the sake of the world.
To love God with all of who I am is to live and breathe God, think God, be immersed in God. So if I am making a business decision, I am thinking about who I am as a person of God. If I am pondering marriage or any significant relationship, I ask myself how it honors God. How does the ordering of my house, my family, my finances, my leisure time, my care of the earth, reveal the love of God and my neighbor? Huge questions, yes?
Being faithful, as Jesus sees it, is first about God, not me. Then he takes another step. The practice of our faith is not about me, but about we. Worship is most authentic by gathering as a community. Notice in our Prayer Book tradition that the words are continually we and us, not I and me. Furthermore, we cannot celebrate the Eucharist with our eyes closed to the needs of the world. The Orthodox tradition has a wonderful turn of phrase: “The liturgy of the Liturgy.” It means that worship must flow from this altar to the altar of the world.
A story told by two American church workers in East Jerusalem may help underline Jesus’ point. A large number of Palestinians were gathered at a bus station across from the Damascus Gate. As you are aware this can be a place of great tension between Palestinians and Israelis. A group of young Palestinians began to taunt some of the Israeli soldiers when suddenly, a Palestinian father, carrying a small child in his arms, walked up to an Israeli soldier and shook his hand. As tensions eased, the relieved soldiers took out a pot of tea and shared it with the crowd.
For you and me, our engagement with the world is like that cup of tea. This altar of our worship and communion with Christ and one another here at St. Stephen’s goes with us out those doors and everything we do. For a Christian every boardroom table is an altar, every kitchen table is an altar, every vestry meeting table is an altar. Loving one’s neighbor as oneself is more than a passing definition for Jesus. It is a radical way of living. Our allegiance, (hold on here!), is not first to self, country, work, money, the American dream, or Wall Street. Our first allegiance is the love of God and the love of sisters and brothers who are found everywhere and anywhere, all made in the image of God.
We come again now to Eucharist, to be formed and transformed more and more to be the Body of Christ in the world. We are to become what we eat and drink. Leave worship today to greet the Christ already at work in the world. Loving God and loving neighbor, we pursue justice and peace for the entire creation.