Homily: Love God

A148OT30_1_cf03_4cToday’s Gospel passage is only one small piece of a conversation we’re overhearing between Jesus and the religious authorities of his own people. It’s a little bit like listening in on a family argument, but with higher stakes. The displeased leaders uncomfortably recognize Jesus’ parables as speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. Feeling offended and disrespected and perhaps threatened, they fight back with the only weapons they have: their learning, and their way with words.

Like our modern present election debates, these exchanges appear polite on the surface, but the tension underneath is hard to miss. In Matthew’s descriptive account, the authorities plotted to entrap him, and Jesus, aware of their malice, calls them ‘hypocrites’, and tells them that they know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.

Jesus hasn’t applied for a license to preach or passed their test of orthodoxy, and yet his answer today to a question about the heart of the law, the heart of his people’s tradition, shows that he is an utterly faithful Jew. On round three of theological questions, the Pharisees have sent in their big gun, this legal expert, to get to that heart of the matter. The Pharisees take their best shot and it misfires. Jesus fires back, and no one bothers to reload. The lawyer has asked a “Do-You-Have-A-Clue-About-Being-Jewish? question, and Jesus shows He clearly knows very well about what it means to be a Jew.

To use a baseball metaphor instead, we might say that the Pharisees throw Jesus an easy pitch and he hits it out of the park. Instead of reducing the importance of the rest of the laws, he paints a picture of them as a coherent whole that hangs together. What Jesus claims is that the whole law is about love, not rules; about really loving God and one’s neighbor, not about figuring out how to avoid stepping on cracks in the legal sidewalk.

We know that we’re called to love one another, not just the people we feel love for, but all of God’s people. We might ask ourselves what are the boundaries we have created, and how comfortably we live on this side of them, all the while thinking that we too are faithful to the two great commandment/relationships. God didn’t mean for us to love those people, right? And yet Jesus made clear the reason we love even the stranger, even the least among us: he said that we will be judged by whether we were able to see him, to see Jesus, to see God, in every single person we encounter, and he describes that love in what we do, not what we feel.

Then turning to the first and greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart and soul and mind, we must once again consider our orientation, or setting, The character of the heart depends upon its orientation, what it was pointed toward or centered in. Jesus says we are to be centered in the Spirit, and not in the many other things that call for our loyalties, rival centers like family, wealth, honor, and religion.

Two thousand years later, it might be obvious to ask if nationalism, for example, has demanded our loyalty in ways that displace the primary importance of God, and if God is indeed first in our hearts and our lives. We must consider values and loyalties that are closer to home, especially family and religion, both of which are certainly good, but isn’t it possible for them to take on more fundamental importance in our lives even than God? We should be prepared to follow in the way of Jesus, to be called a radical, and to bear the price as well.

You see, the basic reality of God being love means to love God is to love love itself. We have Jesus himself as a role model in that radical, perhaps even shocking, way of loving: “He loved prostitutes. He loved sinners, traitors, tax collectors. He treated the shamed with honor and declared the unclean clean. He loved the unlovable. He loved his enemies. That was Jesus’ “fundamental” orientation — from the very center of his being, Jesus loved everyone he met. When we’re trying to figure out the meaning of life, when we’re trying to make sense of everything, The gospels point us toward this reality that can give life its richness and ultimate meaning, that beckons us to live better than we live, that can be as powerful in the shaping of human life and relationships as we want it to be.

It’s not surprising that a mystic like Thomas Merton describes this love in terms of the mystery and hiddenness of God: “Love,” he wrote, “is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name. If, therefore, I do anything or think anything or say anything or know anything that is not purely for the love of God, it cannot give me peace, or rest, or fulfillment, or joy. To find love I must enter into the sanctuary where it is hidden, which is the mystery of God.”

When we explore the mysterious power of love that comes from God, we see that Jesus embraced that power, lived it, spoke of it, storied it into existence, and surrendered to it, finally accepting its limitations and succumbing to the powers of fear and hatred that crucified him. This is how, even in death, Jesus could become an experience of God to others. And our only question, as Christians, as members of the Body of Christ in the world today, the world that God so loves, is: “How can we each day become an experience of God’s Love to others?” (Kathryn Matthews Huey)

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