I was thinking about some old neighbors we had when I was growing up. We had a Japanese-American family on one side—a few times their grandfather shared with me about his experiences as an internee in Manzanar during WWII. Down the street there were neighbors we didn’t know very well, but we learned pretty quickly that the wife had a hard time parking her big car in their narrow driveway. She would get home at about 5:30 every day, and honk for her husband to come out and park the car for her. For years whenever we heard a car horn, our family joke was “that lady can’t park.”
On the other side of our house was a family that had a Bible study during the 70s that had a big influence on my mom’s life. Across the street there was a Puerto Rican family from New York. The boy who lived there was a little younger than me and tagged along with whatever I was doing at the time. They took me to the beach once when I was about 10, and I remember afterward the dad taking us out on the front lawn where he kneeled down and rinsed the sand from our feet. To this day he’s the only person I can remember ever washing my feet besides myself or my parents.
We had some interesting neighbors, but I never really thought about what it might mean to love those people. I didn’t choose them. I didn’t know them all that well. I never really thought about loving them.
Turns out Jesus did.
And not just the neighbors that live in places near us at any given time. Jesus calls us to love neighbors, and by neighbors he really means pretty much anyone who isn’t you.
Sometimes he means people who you can’t even stand.
Occasionally he means people who would rather kill you than be loved by you.
In multiple places and in different ways, Jesus Christ calls us to love the people around us—the other people he made and loves and wants to reconcile to himself.
In the aftermath of so many violent hateful acts, and as we approach the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, this seems like the perfect time to talk about loving our neighbors—maybe even about loving our enemies. Jesus talks about both a lot, especially compared to some of the other issues that our churches get wrapped up in. He talks about it a lot, and if we’re honest we’ll admit that we don’t talk about it much at all.
Talking about loving God and our neighbors is really an extended conversation about what it means to be a mature Christian, to be a follower of Jesus. The church has spent 2000 years mostly trying to define what it means to be a Christian in terms of statements of things we believe. But Jesus had a different perspective. He saw faith as being thoroughly linked with action—not to earn God’s love, but as evidence that we’ve experienced God’s love.
Now I’m not ready to give up the idea that what we believe is crucial to being a Christian. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. Doctrine matters—if only to put the brakes on our temptation to re-create God in our own image. Doctrine matters, but it’s not the point.
Jesus doesn’t define the life of faith by what we believe as much as he defines it by who and how well we love. Jesus doesn’t say “they’ll know you’re my followers by your sound doctrine.” No, Jesus says: “By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
It was a regular part of Jewish prayer life to begin and end each day with the prayer known as Shema Yisrael. We know it like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
This was the prayer that every faithful Jew said in the morning and again at night. It was the foundation for everything else. In our text someone approaches Jesus to trip him up, to catch him in some willful disobedience to the Jewish tradition. “What’s the most important commandment?” the guy asked.
Jesus took the main point of the Shema prayer and joined it with another line from Leviticus 19:18. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So Jesus’ response was to take a familiar answer and add to it something that hadn’t been connected to it before. Sure, every faithful Jew knew that they were supposed to love God, but it was easy to minimize that obscure bit about loving your neighbor. Jesus not only joined them together, but he added that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The essence of being a follower of Jesus is to love God with all we’ve got—our heart and soul and mind—and to love and care for our neighbor as much as we love and care for ourselves.
How important is all of this? How central is this idea to what it means to be a Christian person? Let’s let Jesus take that one. He said: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Everything depends on this. When Jesus says “all the Law and the Prophets” he means the entire foundation of faith in the one, true God. It’s such an enormous claim—such an over-the-top radical statement—it’s so huge that I can’t believe Matthew 22:40 hasn’t ended up on t-shirts and keychains and anywhere else it can be printed. I can’t believe we haven’t seen on a poster in the end zone of an American football game.
Everything depends on this.
Think about that for a moment. Everything the Bible teaches on sexuality or personal morality. Everything the Bible teaches on peacemaking or social justice. Everything we know or will ever know about theology and doctrine.
Everything depends on this.
Everything hangs on the one-two punch of “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
We talk a lot about loving and serving God. We worship and fellowship together, we try to grow our faith through Bible study and reading. We try to move out in faith in our communities and around the world to be God’s messengers.
But loving our neighbor in the way that God defines love—and the way God defines neighbor—doing that part is a little more of a challenge. We’re going to focus on how these go together to form us into the people God wants us to be.
I want to recommend a very good book called The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, by Mark Labberton. Loving our neighbors, the author says, is about aligning our hearts to God’s so that we see the world and the people in it with his eyes, his heart. This is directly connected to the issue of justice in the world. Listen to what he writes.
“Our hearts don’t consciously will injustice. Nor do they deliberately withhold compassion. Nor is it that tales of injustice fail to grab us and concern us. Yet our hearts are weak and confused. Our hearts are easily overwhelmed and self-protective. They’re prone to be absorbed mostly with the immediacy of our own lives. Our hearts have the capacity to seek justice, but they’re usually not calibrated to do so—at least not beyond concern for our inner circle. In a world of such hearts, virulent injustice thrives. Systemic injustice, the absence of the rule of law, and the suffering of so many innocents at the hands of oppressors—that injustice relies on the complicity and distraction of our ordinary hearts.”
In order to love our neighbors, even when our neighbors are our enemies, our hearts have to be calibrated—they have to be retuned so that we see the world and the people in it with God’s eyes—with God’s heart. It’s not easy—it seems overwhelming and challenging and impossible. And yet here’s the thing:
Everything depends on it.
In this time of tension and violence and fear, Christians need to be reminded that the mark of our faith is how we love the other. We need to talk and reflect and act on the commands Jesus actually gave, instead of on the isolated verses that confirm our own biases and hatreds. We need to remember that the commands Jesus gave were rooted in the faith he came to complete.
“Hear, my people, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
The world needs to hear that message from us. But more importantly, the world needs to experience that message from us in the ways we interact with our neighbors. May God bless you with a sense of urgency for sharing and living this message, today and always.