October 23, 2011
There is a peculiar twist in today’s gospel, and it is intentional. When one of the teachers of the law asks Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment?” he poses the most important question that a Jew could ask. For Jews of the first century, like Jesus and the teacher who questioned him, saw in the law the revelation of God’s will. To know the most important commandment of the law, then, was to know what was most important to God and also to discover what was the secret of living. Here is where the twist comes in. When Jesus is asked to give one commandment, he gives two instead: we are to love the Lord God with all of our hearts, and that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Giving two commandments instead of one is intentional. Jesus’ point is that these two commandments are actually one—like two sides of the same coin, like two hands working together, like the way that the sun is both light and heat.
So what is most important to God? What is the secret of living? It is to know that God is a God of love and that we are asked to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and with all of our mind and to know that if our love of God is to be real, then it must be expressed in our love for others. This is the great double commandment of Jesus. To say that we love God is to commit ourselves to love others, and in our love of others, we express our love for God. This great commandment of Jesus is at the heart of Christianity. It has always been so.
I want to share with you a remarkable quotation that was written by a Greek philosopher living in Athens in 125 C.E.—that is about a hundred years after Jesus’ death. His name was Aristides. He was not a Christian. But he wrote a letter to the emperor Hadrian describing the Christians in the city of Athens. His remarkable letter has come down to us. Here is what Aristides says:
“Christians love one another. They never fail to help widows. They save orphans from those who would hurt them. If one of them has something, he gives freely to the one who has nothing without boasting. If they see a stranger, Christians take him home and are happy as though he were a real brother. And if they hear that one of them is in jail or persecuted for professing the name of their redeemer, they all give him what he needs and, if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any poor or naked, if they have no spare food, they fast for two or three days in order to supply the needy. Truly, this is a new people and there is something divine in them.”
Aristides was able to see something divine in the Christians living in Athens, because he saw how they loved others.
What about us? We’re here today because we believe in God. We come together today to show our love of God. This is good, but when we leave this church, is our love of God visible? Can others see something divine in us? If you want to know, ask your neighbors. Ask your neighbors how they see you. Would they say, “Mrs. Brown? Oh, she has a beautiful yard. She is a wonderful cook.” Or would they say, “She’s somebody who would welcome a stranger, who would never judge anyone by their condition or the color of their skin.” Ask the people you work with how they see you. Would they say, “Oh, Mr. Farmer? He’s smart. He’s a climber. He’s very efficient.” Or would they say, “He’s a person I can trust. He’s a person who gives others a fair shake. He cares for people more than money.” Ask your friends. Would they say, “Joey? Oh Joey’s a good athlete. He’s the life of the party. You always have fun with Joey.” Or would they say, “Joey is someone you can count on. He’ll give you his time if you’re in trouble. He’ll never tear down another person.”
In order to see the divine in us people must see our love of others. Jesus’ great commandment is a double commandment. Each part is essential. To say that we love God and not to love others is following only half the commandment. And following half the commandment is not following the commandment at all.