The Rev’d Charles Everson
Oct. 29, 2023 • Proper 25, Year A • Matthew 22:34-46
I lived in Paris for two years after graduating from college, and during my time there, I often found myself wandering over to a neighborhood called Le Marais. The Marais is a fascinating neighborhood in that it is both the center of LGBT culture, and, for the past 200 years, the center of Jewish life in Paris. I’m sure my jaw dropped the first time my boss and his wife took me here to get a falafel sandwich. We turned a corner and saw an Orthodox Jewish family with six children, all in religious clothing, standing in front of a shop flying a large, rainbow flag. Orthodox Jewish men wear small boxes on their foreheads called phylacteries that contains tiny scrolls of parchment inscribed with four sets of verses from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. One of those four passages is known as the shema:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
In today's gospel lesson, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest”, and Jesus responds with a direct quote from this passage in Deuteronomy.
What does it mean to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind? Back in my days as a Southern Baptist, we sang all sorts of contemporary Christian songs in church about loving God in an emotionally-charged way that almost sounded like we were singing about our love for our significant other. I call them “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.
Scholars don’t believe that the term “love” here refers primarily to an emotion. Political treaties and other covenants in that time and area of the world used the word “love” to mark the proper attitude and behavior of parties toward each other, especially vassal subjects to their overlords. To love God as one would love a human king entails primarily action, not emotion. To love is to be faithful and loyal in fulfilling the obligations of the covenant. To love God means to obey God’s commandments with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. In other words, to love God is a verb that means to love God with your entire life. With all that you are. To be faithful to him in every part of your being, and in your choices and behavior.
That is the first and greatest commandment, according to Jesus. And the second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. This is another quote from the Torah, but this time from our first reading today from Leviticus chapter 19 which is all about how the holiness of God should be reflected in human beings. In a earlier life, I understood the call to holiness to mean a call to be pure. Don’t hang out with “those people” as they may lead you down the wrong path. Instead, surround yourself with other Christians who think as you do. Don’t let yourself be polluted by the thinking and behavior of those who don’t. In this passage from Leviticus, we see a very different way of understanding holiness. It is not cut and dry, and can be very messy. The call to holiness is an invitation to “inclusive wholeness” in which “you shall not render an unjust judgment” or “go around as a slanderer” or “hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” While the word “neighbor” in most places in the Hebrew Bible refers to fellow Israelites, just a few verses later in Leviticus 19, we see where holiness finds it fulness: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The ultimate expression of holiness is granting equal citizenship status to the resident alien.
Loving God with all that you are, and loving your neighbor as yourself, is hard work. The active love of God is much more of a duty than it is an emotion. And the love of neighbor is even more difficult, I think. It is easy to love people who look and think like me…who have the same values and general outlook on life as I do. It is much more difficult to love the stranger—the person “over there” who is different than I am. It’s much easier to act with loving-kindness and mercy and generosity with those who elicit the feeling of love in their heart. For no one looks into the eyes of their enemy and feels love in their heart.
The love Jesus calls us to today is not passive, but is something we do. It’s not about emotion, it’s about faithfulness. We are to love God with all that we are—with our hearts, our souls, and our minds. And we are to love our neighbor—especially those who are different than us—as ourselves.
What would the world look like if everyone heeded Jesus’s two Great Commandments? What would our political discourse look like? How about our parish?
How might God be calling the gay shop owner in the Marais to love the Orthodox Jewish man with a long beard and a phylactery on his forehead? How is the average Israeli citizen called to look upon the average citizen of Gaza? How is the Democrat called to look upon her Republican neighbor?
What is one area in your life in which you are not loving God with your whole self? Who is the person or group of people you dislike the most, and how might God calling you to actively love them?
 Deuteronomy 6:4-9, NRSV.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=462  Leviticus 19:33-34, Jewish Study Bible, p. 243.  David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 198.