Sermon on What It Means to Love Your Neighbor

34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ 37He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David.’ 43He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’ ”? 
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

There’s a preacher who tells the story of a man who had hit rock bottom and realized that he desperately needed help with his life.  He was out of control and he had heard that the Bible was the place to go whenever you had troubles.  So he decided that he would open the Bible to a random page and whatever his eye fell to, that’s the thing he would do. The first verse he saw when he opened the book was, “Judas went out and hanged himself.”

“That can’t be right.” He thought. So he decided to try again.  He let the pages fall open and looked down.  This time he read, “Go and do likewise.”  “No way,” he cried! He decided to give it one more try.  So he repeated the process a final time and the verse he saw was, “What you must do, do it quickly.”

As this story illustrates, the Bible does not come out well when its words are taken out of context, or when we ignore the greater narrative of the Bible and focus in favor of snippets here and there. This is the argument against reading Scripture literally. If we do, we ultimately run into problems.

However, I learned a long time ago that a rule is not truly a rule unless there is an exception to it.  And Jesus’ answer to the question of the Pharisee from this morning’s Gospel reading is that exception to the rule. If you were to come up with a one-sentence thesis to the overarching story of the gospel, you couldn’t do much better than the command given in today’s reading.

If we listen to Jesus teach in this gospel text, he says that all of the law and the prophets hang on the commandment of love. Not some of the law or almost all of the law or a medium amount of the law. ALL of the law and prophets hang on the one command of love. I think we, as the church, need to rediscover and reimagine how we act out this love in our everyday lives. And I absolutely believe that love requires action. Love is much more than an emotional or an intellectual commitment. In the New Testament, whenever the writers speak of Godly love, they use the word agape. Perhaps you recognize this word. The important part of knowing this is that this word for love, agape, is derived from a verb, agapao. This is the word used in both commands of Jesus here. We are to actively love God and actively love our neighbor. They’re connected. When we actively love God, we love our neighbor. And more importantly when we actively love our neighbor, we love God.

I think a lot of times we fall into the trap of loving people out of some sort of agenda. We build relationships with people in order to impress a belief on them, or even something as trivial as using their lawn mower. I was going to use the example of shovel or snow blower, but we’re not in Minnesota anymore. But if we build relationships that have an agenda, if we befriend people and love them in order to use them, that’s not love at all. It’s something else.

I have a dear friend of mine who, when we were in college, would go sit at different tables in the lunchroom and make friends with all kinds of different people. Then after a while he would come back to our table and give us what he called a “progress report”. He would go around and talk to all these people and make friends with them in order to get them to come to his church. That was his only goal when he went around to get to know these people. Something always made me uncomfortable about that. When the only reason we build relationships with people is in order to get them to do something, that’s not love. There’s a disconnect there. There’s something that doesn’t quite add up. And there’s something that can be very dangerous when there’s a gap between our actions and the intent behind them, when we want to act like we love people, without actually loving them.

There’s another story I heard once that highlights this gap. It goes like this. There was a young minister sitting in her house on a Sunday afternoon who was disturbed by a frantic banging on the front door. Upon opening the door, she was confronted by a distraught member from her church. It was obvious he was exhausted from running to her house and was on the verge of tears.

“What’s wrong?” asked the minister.

“Please can you help?” replied the man. “A kind and considerate family in the area is in great trouble. The husband recently lost his job, and the wife cannot work due to health problems. They have three young children to look after, and the man’s mother lives with them because she is unwell and needs constant care. They are one day late with the rent, but despite the fact that they have lived there ten years with no problems and will likely have the money later in the week, the landlord is going to kick them all onto the street if they don’t pay rent by the end of the day.”

“That’s terrible!” replied the minister. “Of course, we’ll make some of the extra church funds available to help them out so they can stay in their home. May I ask how you know them?”

“Oh,” replied the man. “I’m the landlord.”

What this story illustrates so plainly is our desire to help out our neighbor. To show them love. But a lot of times we get in our own way. We get prideful. We get selfish. We focus on ourselves instead of focusing on others. If we’ve been paying ANY attention to Jesus in his interactions with the Pharisees and the chief priests these last few weeks, it’s a pretty popular lesson. With so many of these parables, the main message is to take the focus off of us and focus on bringing about the kingdom of God. This love is active. It’s true to the spirit of agape found in this text.

The active part of loving God comes in the form of loving our neighbor. I can say, “I love God.” And that’s great. That’s wonderful. But it doesn’t get to the spirit of the commandment. It’s verbal, but it’s not a verb. It’s not action. Jesus is commanding us to act out our love of God in our love of the neighbor. This is the heart of the great commandment.

There is an amazing theologian and pastor named Barbara Brown Taylor who sums up the words of Jesus in today’s gospel. She says,  “The assignment is to get over your self. The assignment is to love the God you did not make up, with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and the second is like it, to love the neighbor you did not make up as if that person were your own strange and particular self. Do this, and the doing will teach you everything you need to know. Do this and you will live.” Amen.

Cheers,
Eric

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Comments

  1. I was trying to look up a sermon by Spurgeon about ‘the greatest command’, because I remember he said something true- but also odd, since it was (duh) said in a very 19th century way about it (” It is “great,” for it containeth in its bowels every other. “, oh the bowels). and what popped up before his in google search- why, your sermon!
    i’m totally using the story of the landlord knocking on the door. thanks friend 🙂

    • I actually hacked Google so that when someone searches Spurgeon sermons, my page shows up! Actually that’s not true. But I should look into that. And for the landlord story, don’t thank me. Thank Peter Rollins. It’s a great story though, isn’t it?

      Thanks for being you and encouraging Megan these past few days. I think she’s used to me saying encouraging things to her, so a second opinion is always appreciated 🙂 Have a great day, Cassie!

      • I knew that story was familiar! Good ol’ Pete 🙂
        and I do strive to be myself. Glad I can encourage/support Meggo from bullies! very ironic considering the nature of the post she posted earlier that day too. oh the internets.

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