I suspect that every set of parents can vouch for the fact that they have, in actuality, two sets of children.
The first is, of course, the children they see every day: the ones they love dearly but who nonetheless can tend to be, shall we say, taxing from time to time. These are the children who don’t pick up their clothes off the floor, who burp at the dinner table, who put up a fuss about having to do some extra jobs around the house, who will not only “sport an attitude” from time to time, but who will also show forth the occasional fit of temper, complete with foot stomping and door slamming! But then there’s the other set of children: the ones that the grandparents tell you about; the children who go for meals and sleepovers at friends’ houses. These kids are the ones who are incredibly polite at the table; they offer to help out with the dishes after supper; they make conversation and actually laugh in the face of household chores! Many is the parent – myself among them, for I remember this very well (!) – who has heard of the wonderful behavior of these rare individuals, only to look at their own children and ask, “Who are these people?” What a shock to find out that both sets of children are in fact one and the same!
Of course, over 28 years and three now grown children I’ve come to understand this phenomenon; it’s just that when we, as parents, ask our kids to do such things it’s a requirement, part of the day to day rules of the house. And so their attitude often becomes that you have to do it and you do it; but nobody can make you be happy about it, and you certainly don’t need to give it your whole heart! But when someone like Grammie asks you to do it, those heretofore horribly menial tasks take on a whole new meaning! It’s pretty simple; I mean, you love Grammie, and Grammie is always doing nice things for you, so you’re only so pleased to repay that kindness by doing anything for her that will make her happy; and so consequently and miraculously a whole lot gets done! There were actually times “back in the day” when I remember looking at this alternate set of children in our house, and wondering to myself why Grammie couldn’t just stay around forever!
Well, actually, there’s an analogy to be made between this and our text for this morning, in which one of the scribes comes to Jesus and asks the question, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Now, we’re not told precisely why this scribe was moved to ask this question of Jesus (although Mark does point out that amidst all the questions that had been hurled at Jesus by the Pharisees in order to “trap him in what he said,” this particular scribe had taken note that Jesus “answered them well”); but we do know that being a scribe, this man would no doubt have been well-versed in all 613 different divine laws that could be identified in scripture; also that along with other scribes, he’d probably discussed and debated the relative weight and importance of each and every one of those laws: from “thou shalt not kill,” to all the dietary laws and everything in between. So maybe it was simply another question designed to ferret out Jesus’ true motives; or perhaps there was some genuine theological curiosity in what Jesus might say to a question like this; because in truth of fact, it’s a good one: with such a long list of commandments, which one is the most important? Which of the commandments brings us the closest to God?
And Jesus answers it simply: first, he says, drawing directly from the passage in Deuteronomy from which we read this morning: it’s to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and second, it’s “to love your neighbor as yourself.” And then, when the scribe affirms the truth of Jesus’ words, as well he should, that following these two commandments are “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifice,” Jesus says to the scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Love God, and love neighbor… and you are not far from the kingdom of God!
It’s a powerful statement; and, I might add, one of those passages of scripture that has become so familiar to our ears it risks losing its true meaning for us. Because understand that what this scribe learns from Jesus is the radical truth that there is a difference between simply observing the law of God on the one hand and actually embracing the truth within that law on the other; which is to let that truth dwell in heart, soul, body and spirit, thus becoming motivated to follow that law with everything you are!
In other words, all the burnt offerings and sacrifices, all the verbal and physical confessions of faith, all strict adherence to the God’s many “thous shalts” and “thou shalt nots:” these are important to be sure; but what Jesus is saying is that where the kingdom of God is concerned none of that really matters unless it is motivated by love: the love of God and the love of others. Just like children who seek to do their best when they’re motivated by their love for a grandparent or some other person dear to them, we are not far from the kingdom of God when out of our deep and sincere love of God we’re seeking to do that which God would have us do in love!
It is said that somewhere in Europe, there is a beautiful park where there’s this huge flower bed on which is posted a sign with a message written in three languages. In German, the sign says, “Picking flowers is prohibited.” In English, “Please do not pick the flowers.” But in French, the sign says, “Those who love flowers will not pick them.”
That’s the difference, you see, between following the letter of the law and embracing its spirit. There are so many people – people of faith, mind you – who are motivated to do God’s will based on something other than love. It might be the belief, as that of the Pharisees, that only by correctly following every rule and regulation comes the only hope of gaining God’s approval and righteousness; or it might come out of a fear for what theologians call “retributive justice,” which basically means that if you disobey God, God will strike back at you! It’s true; people will do what they have to do, even the right thing to do, for a whole lot of different reasons. But it’s only when we live lives motivated by love; only when we act with sincere heart and sincere purpose, trying to love as God loves and as God would have us love; that is when we find ourselves nearby to God’s kingdom within us and around us.
Of course, as simple as Jesus makes that sound, we know better, don’t we? It’s one thing to hear this commandment to love; it’s quite another to make it a reality in our lives and relationships. Frankly, it’s hard sometimes to love and honor all people, because in all honesty some people come off as being pretty much unlovable! But therein is where the commandment comes alive, for this is how God loves us! The Rev. Alex Thomas, a retired Anglican priest in British Columbia, says this well when he writes of the years he worked as a pastoral counselor to those struggling with addiction; though I have to say that this applies to a whole variety of relationships. He says, “When I worked in the field of addictions, people tried to manipulate me, they were angry with me, they swore at me, they threatened to kill me, pointed a gun at me, they were downright miserable. [And] sometimes I didn’t like them. I didn’t see them affectionately. At times I had to be hard with them. I had to stand tough. However through it all I tried to act in love… I wanted the best for them… I wanted them to grow… I wanted healing for them. I believe Love to be actively promoting goodwill, helpfulness, healing and growth.”
If I can put that another way, love means living life in such a way that bears witness to God’s truth; it means acting in such a way that is a reflection of God’s love in the world; and that means remembering that there is a place for both “warm and fuzzy caring” and “tough love!” The bottom line is that these two commandments, to love God and to love neighbor, reveal to us just how fully committed to God we’re supposed to be! We are to love God with our whole being, friends; not simply with what’s left over from attending to all the other priorities of our lives. Every breath we take should be imbued with praise and thanksgiving; every thought we have should be focused on our relationship with God in and through our daily lives; and every action taken is to be a response to God and the love God has given us. A life of faith is not to be selective, self-serving, or self-righteous, but willing to be humble in its nature and all-inclusive in its scope.
To love God and to love neighbor? If you love God, you have to love neighbor; it’s not possible to have one without the other! And it does sometimes require steadfast determination – not to mention patience, a spirit of forgiveness, and more than a little bit of self-sacrifice (!) – but if you can be in that place of love; if you can “get over yourself” long enough to truly and actively love God and God’s people, well then… you’re going to find yourself not too far from the Kingdom of God!
Perhaps you’ve heard the little poem, attributed to the 18th century English poet William Blake that speaks to all of this:
I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see.
I sought my God, by my God eluded me.
I sought my brother and I found all three.
Beloved, God’s law tells us the way of life; but the larger truth is that you and I are unable to truly embrace that way of life unless we are willing to love. If we are to remain near to God; if we are truly be the kind of people – and, might I add, the kind of church – that God would have us be, then love needs to be near to us as well: love on our lips that speak the words that should be said; love in our hearts that assure that what is spoken is truth; love in hard-working hands that lift up the fallen, and love in walking feet that will surely go the extra mile and beyond.
What we are talking about here is love that brings God’s life and God’s purpose to the world; which is not far at all from the kingdom of God.
May we be followers of God’s law and purveyors of God’s love as we go out into the world this week; and as we do…
… may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry