Loving our Neighbors
22 Pentecost; October 29, 2023
Saint David’s Episcopal Church
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thess 2:1-8; Matt 22:34-46
I start with an odd observation: Jesus almost never actually answers questions in a straightforward way.
Part of the reason is surely that the people asking the questions are routinely hostile to Jesus, as in our reading for this morning.
But the pattern is striking. The running debate of which our passage is a part begins when chief priests and elders of the temple ask Jesus by what authority he does the things he does? Jesus responds that he will answer them if they will first answer the same question for John the Baptist. They refuse to answer, and so does Jesus (21:23f).
In our reading from last Sunday, Pharisees ask Jesus about paying taxes to the emperor. In reply, Jesus asks them, whose head is on the coins? They say Caesar’s. And Jesus tells them to give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s. I imagine the Pharisees saying to themselves later, with puzzlement in their voices, does he mean yes?
But our reading for this week is different. We’re still in the same section of the Gospel, the same running battle as the other exchanges. And once again, religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus with a question. But this question is so important that Jesus answers it, directly and unambiguously.
Which commandment in the law is the greatest? “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Love God above all else. Love God with everything you have and everything you are.
At that point, Jesus has answered the question as asked. But Jesus keeps going because the love of God doesn’t stand alone. Jesus adds that there is a second commandment like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God and love of neighbor go together, two commandments that are really two sides of a single coin.
To drive the point home, Jesus says one more thing. “On these two commandments—on the commandments to love God and neighbors—hang all the law and the prophets.” ALL the law and the prophets.
There are 613 Jewish laws. According to Jesus, all 613 derive their meaning and purpose from the combined commandment to love God and neighbor. In my Bible, there are 300 pages of prophetic material. According to Jesus, every line of every page derives its meaning and purpose from the combined command to love God and neighbor.
If all the law and the prophets hang together on the commandments to love God and neighbor, the biblical lesson is love, always love, in every passage, even the hard ones.
But more important than questions about biblical interpretation are questions about the Christian life. We are commanded to love, to love God and neighbor. Love is the non-negotiable baseline of Christian living. So, if we want to gauge how we are doing as disciples of Christ, the question is, how well are we loving?
When Jesus says to love our neighbors, he means everybody. But as I reflect on how I am doing at loving, I think about my literal neighbor, the couple that live next door to me.
Mostly they keep to themselves. When we meet them on the street, they are not usually warm, but are friendly enough.
But their yard does not meet my standards. In particular, they have a row of sumac trees along the property line. No doubt there are beautiful things about sumacs, but from my perspective a sumac is a weed tree. The problem with sumacs is, they put out shoots underground, shoots that do not respect property lines, shoots that tend to come up in our yard, where we don’t want them.
When Carrie and I first moved in, before our neighbor’s sumacs were well established, we asked that they cut them down. We offered to have a tree man who was already doing work in our yard to do the work. We offered to pay half. They ignored us.
I console myself that, in the long run, the sumacs don’t really matter because they are going to die. Already they are covered by an aggressive vine that will eventually choke them.
But that vine also ignores property lines. So, whenever I check my yard to pull up sumac shoots, I also have to check my yard for this invasive vine.
Jesus tells me to love my neighbor. I am working on that, but it is a bit of a struggle.
This is true for all of us. We all have some people in our lives who are not easy to love.
But last Sunday, in my Franciscan devotional, I read this quotation from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “If we would read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each one’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.”
I take Longfellow to mean, if we could really know the people who irritate us, if we could know the things they struggle with, we could let go of our hostility and maybe even begin to love.
So, this week, I’ve been trying to put myself especially in place of the wife. I’ve been trying to reflect on her “secret history,” her struggles. And in her case, I know some of the story.
My neighbor’s husband is gone for weeks at a time for his work. Her adult daughter moved out a couple of years ago. As a result, my neighbor spends a lot of time alone in her house.
And not just because she likes privacy. In one of our rare conversations from a few years ago, while the war in Syria against ISIS was at its height, she told me that she is Syrian, although you wouldn’t know it from her accent or her looks. She told me that she worried people were angry at her as a Syrian because of all the terrible stuff in the news. She wasn’t simply staying inside by choice. She was hiding.
I still wish my neighbor would clean up her yard, at least the part that abuts our yard. But pausing to think about her “secret history,” is helping me to let
go of some of my resentment and opening up a little emotional space for more generosity.
I fear my neighbor actually likes her stupid sumacs, so I am stuck with those. But I am sure she’d love to get rid of the choking vines as much as I would. And it occurs to me that next spring, I could offer to help do that, or to do it for her. I even put it in my calendar so I will remember.
This is all to say, love takes work. Love also takes help in the form of grace. But if we truly want to follow Jesus, if we want to grow in our love of God, we have to do that work. My prayer for each of us is that God will help us to know and to do love. In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan