Beyond the Great Commandment

Proper 30,  October 26, 2014

Matthew 22:34-40

The words are familiar. This is one of the key texts of the Christian faith, the Great Commandment. I’m sure that for many of you, as for me, the words are engraved in our subconscious memory in the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer:

OUR Lord Jesus Christ said: Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

These are good words, comfortable words. They name quite succinctly what a religion ought to teach us about how to live our lives: oriented towards God, oriented towards our fellow human beings; not one more than the other, but in perfect balance, because the love of God and the love of our neighbour are not different, are not somehow in competition for our affections, but are one and the same love.  God has declared himself so completely in solidarity with humanity, that we cannot think of loving one and not the other.

There is nothing particularly original in Jesus’s answer.  It was the accepted Jewish wisdom of the time. It is based, after all, on two Old Testament quotes.  The first half, about loving the Lord with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, is none other than the Sh’ma, the basic confession that was part of the daily prayer of a Jew. The second half, from Leviticus, was also already recognized by some rabbis of Jesus’s day as an excellent summary of the law. Together these two quotes summarize the two tablets of the 10 Commandments. The scribes and Pharisees who gathered would have approved of Jesus’s answer: it is a good and orthodox answer.

So no wonder the Great Commandment is such a beloved text: a balanced and brief summary of what is important in the Christian life, rooted in tradition, satisfying not only to the religious authorities of his own day, but to our own deepest convictions of what healthy religion should look like.

There is just one problem. And that problem is Jesus. Jesus’s habit of not leaving things in a sensible, healthy balance, but of pushing things farther, too far, in fact. We would love just to stick with the Great Commandment; there is enough there to keep us working for the rest of our lives. But Jesus can’t leave it there, he just has to keep pushing us farther, and eventually out of our comfort zone. The problem is that the Great Commandment is not Jesus’s last word on the subject.

The problem is with the word “neighbour”. Already in Luke’s version of the Great Commandment Jesus begins to problematize it. Here, interestingly, it is the lawyer who cites the great commandment.  When he comes to test Jesus, asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus says what do you read in Scripture?

Ah, but who is the neighbour? There’s the nub. In Leviticus it is very clear who we are commanded to love: our own people, our own kin. But when the lawyer in Luke’s version asks “who is my neighbour?”, Jesus turns it on its head by answering with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The neighbour is the uncomfortable neighbour: not the one just like us, but the religious minority, despised and distrusted.

Nor does Jesus even give us the satisfaction of imagining we are helping this outsider, of going all smug and patronizing that we are taking the moral high road, because the parable has it the other way around.  It demands that we think of the outsider helping us.

If Jesus were telling the story to us today, who might he take as an example? I think it probable it might be a Muslim neighbour. The defacing of mosques with graffiti in Alberta and Toronto this past week show how deep the hostility runs among some Canadians.  They may be the Samaritans of our own day.  I have been relieved and proud to read how the community has rallied around the mosques, cleaning the graffiti and making them welcome.  In Toronto, beautifully, it was a church and a synagogue who worked together.  But the parable of the Good Samaritan pushes us to imagine that it is the Muslim neighbour who helps us, shaming us by his generosity. Already Jesus is pushing us beyond the comfortable love of neighbour, into something that is more challenging.

But it gets worse. There is another place in Matthew’s gospel that quotes that verse from Leviticus (it is the most quoted OT verse in the Gospel). And that, of course, is in the sermon on the Mount:

‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

The problem with the Great Commandment is that it is not enough. Jesus has left it behind, and is trying to bring us to a new place, a place where love your neighbour becomes love your enemies. It is a place well beyond our comfort zone, where the reasonable and natural religion of the Great Commandment has become something much more difficult and offensive.

We have seen it this week, how challenging it is to love ones enemies.  The feelings of vulnerability are running high in our nation, as is the outrage over an unprovoked attack.

We have seen an outpouring of love for our neighbours.  For the two Armed forces personnel, senselessly murdered on the streets of our cities for wearing a uniform: Warrent Officer Patrice Vincent and Cpl Nathan Cirillo.  We have been touched by the image of a stranger, cradling a dying Nathan Cirillo in her arms, and finding the words to tell him that he is loved, “you are so loved.” People across the country have been moved by Bruce McKinnon’s cartoon in the Chronicle Herald, depicting the soldiers on the War Memorial stepping down to tend to and receive their fallen comrade.  Clearly this week’s events have touched on deep wells of love.

But what about love of our enemies?  How do we do that?  What would that even mean this week, in the face of the natural anger and hatred we feel for these dark and senseless deeds of violence? How can we love the men who have done these things – wouldn’t that make the very word love meaningless?  Would that not dishonour their victims?

These are hard questions, which yield no easy answer.  Situations like this remind us that love is not a feeling, but a discipline. It is not something we have or don’t have, but something we work on.

That does not mean we hesitate or equivocate about hating and denouncing the actions of these men.  Our opposition to violence must remain unwavering.  It does not mean feeling sentimental about them.  No doubt they were not only disturbed and misled, but nasty specimens as well.

It does mean a responsibility to try to see and understand them as they were. And to look on them, as far as we can, with God’s eyes, too.  Even if their deaths may have been necessary, we do not celebrate or gloat over them, but grieve the loss of two children of God.

It means being careful with the labels we apply to people. Terrorist?  Well, I don’t know.  Wannabe terrorists, certainly.
But at least in the case of the Ottawa shooter, the picture that is emerging is that of a mentally ill and drug-addled homeless man. The problem with the label terrorist is that it dehumanizes the other.  We see them not as complex and broken human beings, but as some embodiment of absolute evil.  And the only response we seem to know to terrorism is to make war on it.  So we get suckered into playing their game, the game of an endless cycle of violence.

The events of this week brought back to me memories of that other fall day, 13 years ago.  I was starting a new job, and was in my first day in the classroom at a seminary.  I was scheduled to preaching the next day, September 12, 2001.  In that situation, needing to find words in the aftermath of an event that had left us speechless, I was glad as never before of the words the lectionary supplied that day, just by chance:

 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
‘Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

It is a time like this when it is most important to gather as a Christian community around the radical and outrageous claims that Jesus makes on us.  I wish the so-called Christians in the White House had spent a little more time with Jesus before they reacted.  A lot of the horrendous history of the past 13 years would have been different.  Their reaction may still have involved the use of force.  Sometimes that may be necessary, just as the Sergeant at Arms had to stop the shooter in the Parliament Buildings.  But it might not have been the path of wholesale belief in redemptive violence that has laid so much to waste over the past years.

It’s ironic – Jesus’s way is supposed to be impractical, pie-in-the-sky, not for the real world.  Well, how’s that shock and awe working out for you?  If we have learned anything from the past miserable 13 years of world history, it is that Jesus’s way may be the only realistic way, the only hope of breaking out of the endless cycle of violence that can never bring closure, only more violence.

Love your enemies. I don’t know what that means, really, I’m not sure most of us do.  But it is something we need to learn, and to try to practise particularly at a time like this.  When emotions are so raw – fear, anger, vulnerability, outrage – we need to get back to the central radical texts of our faith. The Great Commandment just isn’t enough.