This morning’s Gospel reading comes at the end of a lengthy section in which the evangelist Matthew records a series of challenging encounters between Jesus and the religious authorities. Jesus has generally been quite circumspect and even evasive in his responses to the challenges put to him. This time, he answers the question asked him very directly. What is the greatest commandment in the law? Love is the answer, love of God and love of neighbour. Love is what really matters. Everything else in the law is commentary.
There is nothing particularly original about Jesus’ response. Any orthodox rabbi would probably have said much the same thing. Jesus’ contribution lay in how he combined the two love commandments from different parts of the law, how he weighted them, and the authority with which he insisted on them as together forming the greatest commandment. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus does of course also expand the idea of neighbour to include anyone we encounter in the course of our lives.
Love of God comes first, as it must. I believe this is about learning to receive the love of God in order that we might learn to love both God and our neighbour. All of our hearts, souls and minds are to be involved, for it is when we expose the whole of ourselves to the healing love of God that we begin to become whole again. Then it is that we can begin to love with whole hearts, whole souls, and whole minds. Our love for God and neighbour becomes the free response of all that we are to the love from God that we have received and come to know.
The reading from Leviticus is clear that neighbours are not necessarily easy to love. We are to be concerned for unbiased justice in our dealings with our neighbours. We are not to speak falsely about them nor to profit from their misfortune, even if we really don’t like them. We are not to seek their harm, or wish them ill, even if they have offended us. This calls for a strong love, formed by knowledge of the relentless love of God both for ourselves and for those neighbours we might find so difficult. The holiness of God consists in God’s love being unconstrained by our behaviour. We are called to be holy in the same way, freely loving our neighbour, regardless.
I think Jesus’ interactions with the religious leaders as recorded by Mathew have this quality of a holy loving about them. No matter how adversarial the encounters became, Jesus persisted in engaging with them despite the hostile expression of their fears and insecurities. He kept on trying to get them to see the truth about themselves and their condition, the consequences of the choices they were making, the harm they were bringing to themselves and the people they were responsible for. This was not a soft comforting kind of love, but it was real nevertheless, as Jesus argued with them and told them stories that were a mirror reflecting the danger they were in of losing their souls.
In the reading from his letter to the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul speaks about a different expression of courageous love. Coming out of a situation of opposition and mistreatment and suffering, Paul and his companions without bitterness retained a firm hold on the gospel of God’s love and were determined to declare this, regardless. Their hearts had been made whole by the love of God they had come to know and so they spoke to please God by sharing the good news they been entrusted with. More than that, they shared their own selves, formed by the experience of God’s love, gently and with a deep tender caring for the wellbeing of those who had become their neighbours.
I am reminded of some oft-quoted words of James Huntington, the founding member of our Order of the Holy Cross, from the text of the Rule he wrote for the Order: “Holiness is the brightness of divine love … Love must act as light must shine and fire must burn.” May we be made holy in such a way by the love of our holy God.