This teaching on love gets to the heart and soul of God’s will for humanity. Everything else is secondary. I wonder how so many Christians over the years have missed this. I wonder how I did for a significant part of my life and ministry.
Matthew’s version of the teaching on love says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, these two commandments – to love God with the totality of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves – constitute the goal and fulfillment of healthy religion and what God longs to see in human relationships and society. Jesus is saying that everything that was good about the Torah and the writings of the classical Hebrew prophets pointed to this ultimate goal, namely, to teach us how to love. (That doesn’t mean, by the way, that everything in the law and the prophets teaches us how to love. Not everything in those writings are helpful in this regard. To assume they are is the fallacy of biblical inerrancy. What Jesus is saying is that the overriding goal and usefulness of the law and the prophets is to teach us how to love.)
Luke’s version of this takes a different track than Mark and Matthew. In Luke’s version the question asked by the scribe is different than in Mark and Matthew. In Mark and Matthew the question asked is, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” In Luke the initial question by the scribe is, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
The question itself reflects a view of religion that is grounded in a system of meritocracy. I believe there are two serious errors when it comes to religion that turns religion into something harmful and destructive. One is religion as a justification for entitlement. Some people justify their negative treatment and disregard for others on their claim to have exclusive rights to God, to be God’s chosen. They think that because they inherited a particular racial or national or religious identity that sets them apart as God’s chosen.
Another serious blunder of religion is to think that because most of society operates on a system of meritocracy, that is, a system of rewards and punishments that God does to. This assumption seems to be reflected in the question posed by the scribe: What must I do to inherit eternal life. Eternal life is viewed, by the scribe, as a reward that is given to those who meet the requirements.
I think the scribe is part right and part wrong. I believe there is a “doing” that opens us up to the eternal life of God, but I don’t believe that that this life is a future reward. I believe eternal life is both now and later. It is both present and future. But it is now before it is later. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God he spoke of the kingdom as both a present reality and a future prospect. Jesus told some religious leaders, “The kingdom of God is within you.” It’s here right now within you and among you. Eternal life is here right now. Eternal life is first of all a kind or quality of life before it is a quantity of life. The only reason it is eternal is because God is eternal. Eternal life is God’s life present within and among human beings. Eternal life is life in God’s Spirit, life in relationship and partnership with God’s will.
The critical question is: How do we access this life? How do we enter into the experience of it? What does it look like and feel like? This is where the Jesus story in our text comes in. God’s eternal life looks like a Samaritan putting his own life on the line by taking the risk to stop and help someone who appears to desperately need help. Being moved by compassion he did what was necessary. He bandaged his wounds and brought him to an inn and paid for his care. What does eternal life look and feel like? One word can capture it. Love.
Some think that this first command to love God is more important than the second command to love our neighbor. In my view it is just the opposite. The only way we are capable of loving God is by loving our neighbor who is a child of God. By the way this is what the little epistle of First John teaches. John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (4:12a, 16b). In other words, wherever love is God is.
And this is true regardless of what one believes about God. When you love others as yourself, when you feel compassion and show mercy, you are expressing the eternal life of God, whether you realize it or not. There is no other way to love God other than by loving others as we love ourselves. If our faith does not help us do that, then our faith is useless. Remember what Paul said to the Galatians: The only thing that matters is faith working through love. A faith that does not produce love is a useless faith.
How have so many Christians missed this? I missed it for quite a few years. But when you think about it, it’s not hard to figure out why we have gotten so far afield. This loving stuff is gets messy. It’s just so much easier to make faith a matter of believing doctrines and doing certain religious practices isn’t it? Loving others is hard work.
Anyone who has been married or been with their partner in life for a considerable period of time knows this. There are times my wife has to bear through my craziness and sometimes I have to bear through hers. I like to tell young couples planning to marry or say in their ceremony that marriage is never just about 50/50. Sometimes when your spouse is having a tough time you have to give more and vice versa. Some days it’s more like 80/20.
In Luke’s version Jesus responds to the question with a question. Jesus asks him how he reads the Law. The scribe supplies the answer that Jesus gives in Mark and Matthew. (From a strictly historical perspective it’s hard to imagine the scribe giving this answer. Luke changes things around to fit his purpose in telling the story.) So the scribe answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” In response Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”
Notice, Jesus does not say, “Believe this and you shall live.” Again, we wonder how did Christianity get so far off track of the teachings of Jesus. Jesus says, “Do this and you will live. Do this and you will share and experience the eternal life of God.” Do what?” Love. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Or we could paraphrase. Love God by loving your neighbor as yourself, because that’s how we love God. We love God, not by believing the right things about God, but by loving others. How could we as biased, limited human beings ever get our beliefs about God right anyway? We love God not by believing the right things or performing a bunch of religious rituals (not that these are totally insignificant). But the issue is: Do our beliefs and rituals make us more loving? Because that’s the main thing.
I love the story Phillip Gulley tells about the time when, as a young minister, he accepted a call to pastor a Quaker meeting in Indianapolis. It was a small community, but very loving and caring community.
The main reason for the contagious caring spirit that characterized that faith community rested in the presence of a couple who had helped start the congregation years before, Lyman and Harriet Combs. When Gulley met them in 1990, they were retired and had devoted their remaining years to ministering to others. Lyman volunteered each day at a homeless shelter. Harriet made it her practice to be available to anyone in need. She babysat, transported people to appointments, tended the sick, visited the lonely, and did so, says Gulley, with such good humor and joy that to be in her presence was a redemptive experience.
Over the years, the small faith community there took on their demeanor. A light, joyful, and grateful spirit infused the church’s worship and ministry. The little church was incredibly generous, regularly emptying its bank account to help the less fortunate.
Because of the church’s close proximity to several resources for the homeless, they were frequently visited by mentally ill persons, all of whom were warmly welcomed and made to feel at home. So often, people who needed to be touched in a special way, after a divorce, after the death of a loved one, or in the throes of a very painful experience, they would stumble into there little church and find strength, comfort, and hope. And the church eventually attracted more people. But as gracious as the people of the church were, Gulley would often find himself frustrated by their apparent indifference when it came to growing their numbers. On one occasion, frustrated that the community was not growing as quickly as he’d hoped, he asked Harriet why that was. Her response was, “I guess it was never our goal to have a large church,”
Their denomination, as almost all denominations do, had spent considerable resources trying to attract new participants to their congregations, so Gulley was taken aback by Harriet’s response, which seemed to contradict their denomination’s priority. Gulley was young and energetic and wanted the numbers to increase. So he asked Harriet, “Then why are we here?” Rather than getting upset with her immature pastor she said smiling, “To love.” That’s why we are here: to love. Gulley could have passed for the scribe and Harriet for Jesus. Do this and you will live, says Jesus. You will spread life in its fullness wherever you go.
The story that follows in Luke (which is unique to Luke by the way) is not simply an illustration of what love is and what love looks like. It is that, of course, but’s that’s not why Jesus tells the story. Jesus tells the story in response to the attempt of the scribe to justify his lack of love. The scribe asks, “Who is my neighbor?” Maybe consciously or even unconsciously the scribe senses his deficiency, as we all do I suspect. So Jesus tells the story to close any loopholes and so we can be clear who we are to love?
The Sunday School version of this story simply admonishes us to be like the good Samaritan and show love to our neighbors, but leaves the question, “Who is my neighbor?” unanswered. The Sunday School version misses the main point of the story.
Samaritans and Jews had a long standing feud. Not much different than the feud between many Jews and Palestinians today. Jesus, a Jew, makes a Samaritan, someone who had different beliefs and practices than his own people the hero in the story, while the two Jewish clergy are the insensitive, uncaring ones who failed to love. How do you think that story went over with Jesus’ fellow Jews, especially the Jewish religious gatekeepers?
To get the sense of it today, we might retell it by making the one who shows mercy a Muslim (the good Samaritan becomes the good Muslim) and the two who pass by a Christian pastor and a priest.
So who is my neighbor? Well, everyone is my neighbor. The drug addict, the Chinese family across the way who keep chickens and when the wind blows a certain way – O my. Who is your neighbor? The guy next door who keeps throwing his grass on your side of the yard, the belligerent co-worker who thinks of no one but himself, the racist down the street who has a confederate flag flying in his driveway, the fundamentalist Christian who thinks you are going to hell because you go the church where that liberal, so-called Baptist pastor preaches his heresies. And yes, sisters and brothers, we are called to love them as we love ourselves. Yes we are.
You say, “But I don’t want to love them.” Hey, I don’t either. But then Jesus asks us, “Do you want to live? Do you want to share in my life, my passion, in what I am about and doing in the world? Do you want to experience and share in the eternal life of God? If you do, then love them. Learn how to love them.”
If our Christianity is not encouraging us and teaching us how to do that, then we might as well be athiests. Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.” Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
Our good and gracious God, help to realize that if are not becoming more loving persons then our faith, our religion, our Christianity does not have much value. Help us to see that love is not only the main thing; it’s the only thing that really matters. As we share together in the bread and cup may we be inspired to renew our commitment to love as you love each one of us. Amen.