The Greatest Gift
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
October 19, 2008
Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
“On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” — Matthew 22:40
This is the lectionary text for next not this Sunday but I shall preach on it in any case, since having misread the lectionary I composed this sermon and do not have time to do another. In any case it’s not a bad text, perhaps it is one of the best, because once again as so often in the NT it takes us to the heart of the matter, namely, to the gift and possibility of love. There is no possible doubt that everything Jesus taught, – the Kingdom of God, the Son of Man, the Sermon on the Mount, – whatever it may be, all turns out to be describable as Love. The first Epistle of John even says the God is Love and that the way to know God is to love (1 John 4:8). Thus we have been given the greatest gift, to know the content of the fulfilled life and to be shown how to achieve it. We know that our deepest fulfillment as the persons we are lies in loving God and I God’s power those we are given to love, and that they include our enemies, as we saw in last Thursday’s Bible study.
The text indicates that God commands us to love, and in our romance-drenched culture this might raise the question how an attitude like love can be commanded. The solution to this problem is simple: the Pharisees who ask the question use the terms “commandment” and “law” in the sense of “teachings.” So the Pharisees ask, “Which is the top teaching in the Torah?” and Jesus answers with the liturgical evocation called the Shema and an ongoing piece of Jewish worship to this day. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” (Deuteronomy 6:4); and although the Pharisees do not ask for it Jesus adds a second great commandment by quoting Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Both of these teachings are, therefore, quotations from Jesus’ own Jewish scriptures and therefore not new; what might be new is the linking of the two and the instruction that the second is on a par with the first. Nevertheless, the relationship of love remains for Jesus essentially the Jewish one, and this is an element of massive continuity between the two religions.
We Christians take our direction in life from these teachings and know the “Love works no ill to the neighbor therefore love is the fulfillment o f the law “(Romans 13:10).’ A righteous Christian life is not one that obeys the law of God impeccably but a life that loves relentlessly. Relentless, all including love is the life of God in our human lives; in Jesus, in God the Holy Spirit, God ended the days of communicating with us through codes of instructions, through laws and commandments, and came to be our companion and guide. He no longer handed out rod maps to heaven, but came along with us to guide us personally, and his guiding presence is love. How do we know God is with us? We experience marvelous, mysterious love, consoling and cajoling us.
Our love for God is total, as His love for us. We can never match but we can emulate the divine love, with our hearts, our souls and our minds. In context “heart” here means the governing force of our life, the decision-making capacity, “soul” means our substance, that is our possessions, and “mind” means our understanding as it is always in search God’s word and will, and not the curiosity of the Greek philosophers, amongst whom Aristotle famously said that man is the creature who wants to know. That may be the case, but here in the words of Deuteronomy, what man wants to know is God.
So love is the strenuous engagement of our highest powers to do God’s will, to acknowledge God’s sovereignty over all we are and have, and to discern God’s acting and desiring in this world. This is the love of heart, soul and mind.
Last Thursday in our Bible study we discussed the passage in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “You have heard of old that you should love your friends and hate your enemies, but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. In its original context in Leviticus the command to love your neighbor as yourself covers only your friends and fellow Jews. Here Jesus makes the scope universal. Humanity not ethnicity is the demand for love.
So love in the NT is a tough and demanding attitude to life. It demands good judgment, detachment from possessions and sound insight. It is what St Paul has in mind when he urges his Corinthians to “grow up.” Be babes in evil but in faith be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20) H
It stands to reason, therefore, that divine love is different from Romantic love. Indeed, Romantic love is a travesty and an idolatry of divine love, worship of the feelings caused by the perfectly fine and delightful mixture of sexual desire and aesthetic appreciation. Romantic love is less than serious compared with the divine love, even though it can wreak such havoc and keep us entertained forever.
If we were to try to complete the praise of love the world could not contain the books to be written and the movies to be made (c.f. John 21:25), so let us simply take to heart once again the greatest gift of God in this life, and embrace the ones we love close up and extend the goodwill of a loving heart, and souls and mind to all the world, especially to those we consider, or consider us, enemies. And let us pray, for our persecutors.