October 31, 2021, The New Old Number One Commandment, Mark 12:28-34 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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What we call the Law was actually a whole book of laws and regulations that were given to govern life and worship in the nation of Israel. We’re most familiar with the Ten Commandments, but there were some 613 laws in all, literally dealing with everything from birth to death. But as Moses laid out the Law before the people, word by word and line by line, he taught them that there was one commandment at the heart of the whole thing, and that was this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
When the scribe asked Jesus what the most important of all those 613 commandments was, Jesus was quoting Moses: “The first is this, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall 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 the second is this, Jesus said, again quoting from the Law of Moses, this time from the book of Leviticus: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
John the beloved apostle wrote, “I am not writing you a new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. At the same time, it is a new commandment.” Love was always the single heart of God’s law, from the very beginning. That was nothing new. But in Jesus God made it new by putting flesh on love and making it visible to us. Jesus told his disciples, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.The way I have loved you, that’s the way you are to love one another.” That was the new part.
“Love God. Love your neighbor.” So simple. But not so easy. And really, not so simple, either. We sometimes point out how loosely people use the word “love.” We say, “I love God.” But we also say, “I love those Lindt chocolate candies.” Or “I love Welsh Corgis.” Or I love Irish folk music.” And we know that we’re using the word “love” in very different ways. No one imagines that our feeling towards God is the same as our feeling for dark chocolate, or Celtic harp music, or even corgis. Where it gets a little more complicated, though, is when we compare our neighbor-loves. Because we all know that not all neighbors are created equal. “Neighbor” in Bible terms doesn’t mean the guy next door. Neighbor means our fellow human beings: all our fellow human beings. And our fellow human beings span an enormous range. Neighbors are people who are as dear to us as our own lives, neighbors are total strangers, Neighbors are people that fill us with disgust and loathing. But the command is to love our neighbor. All neighbors.
Think right now – close your eyes, if you feel comfortable doing that – and think of a person that you love with all your heart. Sharon might be thinking of that new little grandson that just came home from the hospital. You might be thinking of a close friend who has stuck with you through bad times and good times and everything in between. You might be thinking of your husband or wife. Now, as you think about that person, think about the love that you have for them. Hearing their voice, being with them, even seeing a picture of them warms you right down to the bottom of your heart. That person brings you joy – not because of anything they do for you, because sometimes the people we love the best are too little or too sick to do anything for us at all – but you love them because they are who they are. Nothing can make you happier than being with that person. Nothing can make you sadder or more anxious than to know that they are hurting or in danger. Nothing can fill you with rage more than seeing someone be cruel to them. Because you love that person with all the passion of your heart.
But your love for that person is more than just the feelings you have for them. The people who are dearest to us somehow become part of who we are. That person you’re thinking about, loving them has changed who you are in important ways. Your life is different because you love them. Loving that person has added something to who you were before you knew them. And when they are gone they will leave an empty place inside you that no one else will ever really fill. It’s like there’s a ribbon tied between that person and you, that connects you no matter what or when or where you are. That’s what it means for you to love them with all your soul, with your very being.
And because you love that person, the person you are holding in your mind’s eye right now, because you love them with all your heart and you love them with all your soul, there isn’t anything you wouldn’t do for them if it was in your power to do it. There are amazing true stories of little bitty moms lifting up cars to save the life of their child. It has to do with adrenaline and physical-chemical-reaction stuff, but the deep down truth behind it all is that love is an incredibly powerful force – the most powerful. You would do anything you could do that would bring joy or health or safety to the person you love. And you would do that because you love them with all your might, with all the strength you possess.
To love with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our strength – that’s what the one great commandment God gives us is talking about. And the amazing thing is, we all know how to do that. We all understand that kind of love. We are born knowing how to love; we are born with love in our very DNA, because we were created in the image of God, who is love. But we are also very small and very imperfect in our loving. Just like we have to learn to walk and talk and read, we have to learn to grow in our loving. And especially, we have to learn to extend our love beyond the small boundaries of our natural love.
Jesus told us, “If you love the people who love you, what benefit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? Everybody does that. Even wicked people do that… But here’s what I’m telling you: love the people who call themselves your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them, expecting nothing in return. Then your reward will be great. Then you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. You, be merciful, just like your Father is merciful.” I love my family. I love you all here at church. That’s pretty easy. But what does it mean for me to love the asylum seekers from Haiti that I only see on the news? What does it mean for me to love people whose political views I hate? What does it mean for me to love the noisy teenagers who live across the street from me? What does it mean for me to love the person that hurt me?
The first and greatest commandment, Jesus told us, is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength. But the way to loving God is through loving our neighbor. We can’t do one without the other. When Jesus told a parable about the final judgment, the people who were welcomed into the kingdom were the ones who showed love to the poor and the despised, the ones who fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited the lonely and the prisoner. The love that was given to the last and the least, Jesus said, that love was given to him. Loving God is never disembodied religiosity. God put on flesh and lived among us to show us that loving God is never separate from loving our brothers and sisters in this world. John, the beloved of Jesus Christ, put it pretty bluntly: “If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates their brother or sister, they’re a liar. If they don’t love their brother or sister, someone they’ve seen, they can’t possibly love God, someone they haven’t seen. We have this commandment from God himself: whoever loves God must also love their brother and their sister.” It’s a package deal.
Jesus told us, “I’m giving you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you are to love one another.” We are born with the ability to love, but what we need to learn is how to use that love the way Jesus loves us. He loves you whether you are worthy or unworthy. He loves you when you go to church on Sunday morning, and he loves you when you stay in bed. He loves you when you are cheerful and at your best, and he loves you when you are genuinely hateful. He loves you when you fall into your old sinful habits for the umpteenth time – Jesus forgives you way more than seventy time seven times.
He loves us first. And that is how we grow in our loving. Most of us have passed far beyond our school years, past graduate school, and all the training and preparation for our careers is behind most of us. But we don’t ever graduate from this school of loving. Instead, as Paul puts it, beholding the glory of the Lord – the God who is Love – we are all being transformed into his perfect image from one degree of glory to another. We become better and better lovers, of God and of our neighbor, by following Jesus, our Master and Teacher, because he loves us all with his perfect and boundless love.