When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Happy almost Valentine’s Day! Are you ready? This coming week many cards will be selected, lots of flowers will be bought, and much chocolate will be consumed. Elementary school kids will spend endless hours filling out boxes of Valentine’s cards for the obligatory exchange with their classmates. And all for what? To express love and affection. (Well, maybe not EVERY child’s pile of Valentines will express a real depth of affection for ALL their classmates…)
Do you know where Valentine’s Day came from? While there’s minimal historical evidence, there are many legends behind several early Christian martyrs who were named Valentine.
One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When Valentine’s actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.
Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured.
According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl – possibly his jailor’s daughter – who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.
In any event, the legends portray a Valentine who lost his life.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ critics are challenging him, and they ask him “What commandment is the greatest?” Jesus then repeats verses from the Hebrew scriptures: a verse from Deuteronomy about loving God is followed by a verse from Leviticus, the command to love one’s neighbor. These words would have been known by heart by everyone standing there that day, words repeated every day – love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got – heart, soul, and mind. Then he adds a second part, words also known by heart by everyone there – love your neighbor as yourself.
Whether a challenge to Jesus for the sake of argument or not, the lawyer’s question of Jesus really boiled down to: What does God want from us? Jesus’ answer: To love God with everything we’ve got in us, and to love our neighbors the same way.
Many people like to say that all that matters is following the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But the Great Commandment is deeper: it’s all about LOVE – God’s love – and about how that love is expressed.
As many of you who have truly tried to love your neighbor know, this isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do. What if you have a neighbor who’s always trying to take advantage of you? On the other hand, you may have a neighbor who oversteps the bounds of friendliness. Neighbors can be difficult. Hopefully, most of us can probably find something lovable in even the most difficult of neighbors.
In today’s lesson, Jesus is talking about more than “getting along” or remaining on “friendly terms.” First, he says to love God with all that’s in you – listening to and heeding God’s words, doing what God asks you to do out of love for God, wanting for your life what God wants for your life. Then Jesus calls you to love others in the same way – loving others as much as God loves you. In Christ, that love was self-sacrificing.
God doesn’t want us just to “be nice.” God’s love isn’t about sharing candy and sending cards. God wants us to be all-in with our loving, to the point of loving our enemies, to the point of sacrifice. And that kind of loving is hard.
A couple of weeks ago, in the midst of the polar vortex that brought such frigid temperatures, there were many stories of people who stepped up and went the extra mile on behalf of their neighbors. In Chicago, a woman booked 20 rooms at a local hotel for the homeless, and as word spread, an army of strangers followed her lead and increased the number to 60 rooms. In Michigan, a pharmacist delivered medicine to people on her snowmobile when the roads were impassable. In Iowa, a woman gave birth in her livingroom while waiting for paramedics to arrive. After the EMTs and firefighters arrived to take the parents and baby to the hospital, they walked out the door to find that the firefighters had also shoveled their driveway.
These are simple acts of kindness, but they’re also examples of people going the extra mile, going above and beyond. They’re examples of people reaching out and being a neighbor, when they could just as easily NOT have.
Loving our neighbors in the way of Jesus is no small assignment. The love that Jesus called for isn’t simple emotion. It isn’t “liking,” “getting along with,” or “feeling warm about” those around us. The love Jesus is talking about here is trust, loyalty, and enduring devotion. When Jesus said “love your neighbor as yourself,” he was essentially saying, “treat all those around you as you would your own flesh and blood” – that is, as sisters and brothers in one family, deserving of equal honor and special care. The love Jesus is talking about isn’t some sort of mental or emotional state. This love is a matter of relationship backed up with action. This love is a matter of treating people with respect and enacting compassion rather than simply professing compassion.
Also, the love that Jesus talks about isn’t a matter of “tolerance.” Our world has become so enamored of the word “tolerance” that we’ve devalued the meaning of love and compassion. We’re supposed to be “tolerant” of others’ life-styles, customs, and self-identification; to “live and let live.” While these phrases have their place, I don’t think that’s what Jesus tells us to do. In addition to loving God, we are to love who God loves, as God loves. God doesn’t “tolerate” us. God LOVES us. And so we must love others in the same way. We must love others as we ourselves are loved by God. That’s a very tall order.
To love our neighbors as God commands can be challenging. It may mean talking with an angry protester waving a poster. It’s reaching out to the homeless person with a greeting or a handshake, in addition to resources. It’s being civil with family members we would really rather disown. It’s finding common ground across the political spectrum. It’s welcoming strangers into our midst.
Above all, it’s remembering that our neighbor is whoever we are with.
Love isn’t about balloons and chocolate. Love is about turning the other cheek, going the second mile, forgiving our enemies, praying for those who persecute us, and giving without expectation of return. Jesus not only said that he loved us; he showed us he loved us. Jesus defined the meaning of love as loving God with everything we’ve got and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus embodied the meaning of love by stretching out his arms on the cross.
Love of God. Love of neighbor. Easy to talk about. Hard to live out. May God bless us as we try to do so. Amen.