The Law of Love
Speaker: The Rev'd Emily Griffin
We know the rules; we just don’t want to follow them. “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.” When asked in today’s Gospel to prioritize among the 613 laws Jews were commanded to observe, Jesus was brief and to the point for once. I often accuse Jesus of being a lousy marketer, what with his confounding parables and lengthy discourses and unpopular calls to self-sacrifice, but this time he’s at the top of his game. Any communications expert would tell you. Whether you’re crafting a political slogan, developing a vision for your company, or creating your own personal mantra, the advice is usually the same: It should fit on a t-shirt and be understood by a 5-year-old. Anything else is just a word game. If we want to ignite meaningful change, the message needs to be short, memorable and unique.
At least on the first two criteria, Jesus passes. As potential Christian brands go, “Love God – Love your Neighbor” is an excellent contender – except that it’s not original to Jesus. He’s quoting from the Old Testament; first Deuteronomy, then Leviticus. These are sacred Scriptures to half the world’s population - Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. So, if it needs to be new or unique to be true or helpful, then I’m afraid “Love God – Love your Neighbor” doesn’t cut it.
If only that were our only objection. But it’s not. Any time we’re faced with a rule we think we can’t follow, we start looking for loopholes. What does “love” mean? Who exactly is my neighbor? Let’s start with the first question. “Love” here is not primarily an emotion; it’s a demonstrated commitment to another’s good over time. Let’s face it - our feelings are ungovernable. They’re unsteady; they may bear no relation to the facts. “The heart wants what it wants,” right? Anything that can change with the weather or an empty stomach is no basis on which to build a life.
Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus is advocating. His frame for understanding love is the love God has for us – a love that is steadfast regardless of circumstance. It keeps its promises and won’t lie to us, even when a lie is easier. It’s freely given, unmerited, and unconditional. It’s a demonstrated commitment to our good over time.
If that’s the standard, then no wonder so many of us want to narrow the scope. Perhaps we can imagine loving a God who loves us like that. But people? No one else can love us that fully or unselfishly. So, who can we take off the list? Whose needs can we rank below our own? To the text’s original audience, a “neighbor” was a fellow Israelite. The bounds went well past family and friends – but they stopped at the nation’s border. Keep reading in Leviticus, though, and we hear this: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” (One wishes that those who claim to take the Bible literally would take this literally too, but I digress.)
The rest of Leviticus spells out what that love and holiness might look like in every facet of life. Leviticus has a bad reputation; it’s considered boring and dangerously obsessed with purity. And it’s true, some of its laws do seem bound to a particular culture and time. They need to be seen and reinterpreted by the law of love. But there is a beauty that gets missed here as well. For the ancient Israelites, love for God and love for neighbor affected every area of their lives. It affected what they ate, what they wore, how they gave, how they worshipped. It also rippled out beyond home and family to the public realm.
We hear that in today’s reading. Here there aren’t two standards of behavior – one public and one private. In Leviticus, we don’t get to justify our ruthlessness at work by being a nice guy at home. Or as novelist Kurt Vonnegut once put it, “we are what we pretend to be.” Love for God and love for neighbor (or their opposite) are lived out in our schools and our workplaces, in the courts, in the press and yes – in the voting booth. We never get to leave love for God or neighbor behind. It is the lens through which we are called to see and interpret everything else.
That is a high standard to meet and Jesus only raises the bar higher. In the Sermon on the Mount, he makes it clear. Loving our neighbors does not mean that we can hate our enemies, however we might define them. We owe even them a demonstrated commitment to their good over time – even if they don’t acknowledge it, even if they don’t give it back in return. And just in case we were tempted to keep the line between us and them at the border, Jesus erases that too. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus redefines “neighbor” as anyone in need – regardless of nation or immigration status or creed.
“Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.” There are worse ways to brand the Christian life. It’s short. It’s memorable, and while not unique, it’s easy enough to understand – at least in theory. There are times when the two seem to be in conflict, when loyalty to one seems to do harm to the other – but the God revealed in Jesus has no desire to make us choose. We love God by loving our neighbor, by demonstrating our commitment to the good of anyone in need, by seeking the image of God in them and treating them accordingly. This law of love doesn’t make everything easy or clear, but it does give us a lens that can ignite meaningful change – in what we eat, what we wear, how we give, how we worship, how we work, and yes, how we vote.
In the Name of the One whose love this election season can do more than we can ask or imagine– Amen.