If I ask you about the Hebrew Scriptures – the Old Testament – what comes to mind? How would you summarize the Law and the Prophets, in a nutshell? Noah. Abraham. Sarah. Moses. Jacob and Rebekah. Ruth. Job. Jonah. What else? Lots of violence, maybe (almost certainly).
Here’s Jesus’ take on that question, admittedly sharpened to the question of law [see today’s lessons]: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Is this Jesus taking a red correcting pen to an Old Testament most of us lost respect for a long time ago? Making it simpler. More accessible? Is he taking welcome, creative, and surprisingly contemporary liberties with respect to the 613 (give or take) commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures? Not exactly. He’s quoting. He’s citing Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Jesus’ originality is his simplicity, the framing, the organizing when he says these two are the source of the rest, but the content itself isn’t his. He’s using words pulled from memory – and specifically from the Hebrew Scriptures that, as a faithful Jew, he carries in the memory of his bones.
Who cares, you might say. A good thing’s a good thing, you might say. Six hundred and thirteen was way too many, anyway, you might say. Can’t keep up with that. I’ve got a life to live. Let’s be honest, even ten was a stretch. Right, Moses? I’m on the clock. Keep it pithy. But two? Two, you got my attention. Two, I’m all about. And these two? Totally got it. Thanks, Jesus. I’m all over it.
But are you?
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.
C’mon, if we’re talking likelihood/probability of your followthrough, you’re telling me you wouldn’t trade those two doozies for a couple hundred commandments of busywork?
I would! In a heartbeat.
Some days I do.
What these two summarizing commandments lack in quantity, they more than make up for in degree of difficulty. Even our society appreciates the difficulty of what Jesus is asking because, as much as society wants to value things like love and inclusion, notice the words we use to expand on what love and inclusion might mean when we descend to the level of details in our civil discourse: we use words like tolerance and coexistence. But tolerance is an admittedly low bar. Tolerance is for mosquitos. Tolerance is for immune systems with respect to outside toxins and pathogens. As in, “he’s developed a tolerance to the mold and asbestos in his apartment.” And coexistence simply names our past failures to restrain our real desire to choose a future in which the other has no part, violently if necessary. Is this what love is? Love the Lord your God. Tolerate the Lord your God? We say that it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are trying to be a basically good person, but have you noticed how, in recent conversations like #metoo, and with respect to the insidious and relentless evils of racism, even that bar has been lowered of late? The new word, the new goal is decency, which in part is meant to communicate there are no gold stars and cookies awarded to those people, especially white men, who manage to simply do the right thing on occasion – and that this is an important corrective to hear can’t be emphasized enough, over against the privileged, self-protecting posture of the ally who is more concerned for how he appears than the words and well-being of his sisters and brothers – but if we relent after that, if we stop after that, if that’s as far as we go, if we aim at decency and hit it squarely, if we settle for a prophetic word spoiled and turned only into one more opportunity to shame or conquer each other, if we don’t still press on together beyond prerequisites toward something like actual, living human respect, if we aren’t bold enough to risk submitting pictures of what the good life is and so also what the common good might be and, with these, to give accounts for what true love and mutuality look like, do we only underwrite the pervasive, general ambivalence for what it means to be a good person, much less what it is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself?
And are you really telling me you wouldn’t trade all of that mess for something far less complicated, more straightforward, like a grocery list, even if it was a thousand items long? Or what if, instead, I could give you an endless list of outrages to like, dislike, or share on Facebook and other social media? What I’m saying is it’s a trade many of us already make, maybe because we can’t imagine what the two commandments would look like, here and now, not just in 2017 but in the corners of my neighborhood that overlap my life: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Love God and your neighbor. If only it were so easy. But love is complicated. In society’s terms, love is for the deserving. Which means you can score exemptions from loving some people. It sounds like a deal you should take, at first hearing. But then you realize that rules used to exempt you from loving the indecent people will eventually be used to justify someone’s exemption from loving you. Now, relax, you’re not necessarily unloved yet. You’re just condemned to the terror of potentially becoming unloved at any moment. Relax, maybe you can channel that fear that love will not leave you at the slightest or gravest misstep. Just don’t mess up. Ever. No, you don’t need to be perfect, well, maybe you do, but decent’s a start. You can promise me that much, can’t you?
I can’t. I can’t promise you I am decent.
And if I can’t promise you decent, isn’t it getting ahead of ourselves to think about the far off land of soul-deep, self-emptying love? What if I’m not decent? Where would I get some cover, I assume you can get it somewhere, some counter-exemption for things like the literal slavery of other people that makes our smartphones possible? I know, that’s just it, some things we can’t change. But that’s the point, that if I’ve got to land on the platform of decency, can we all acknowledge that it will have to be selective? And what if I find myself internally convicted for something for which there doesn’t yet exist a popular social critique? Dare I confess it? Introduce it? Better to hide it. Keep it quiet in a silence that numbs my soul of feeling and settles for a semi-salvation for which there’s sufficient social agreement.
You don’t need Facebook to know you fall short of decent. You have a conscience. Better, you have been indwelled by the Holy Spirit of God and baptized into Christ’s own death and resurrection. But while seeing your brokenness and the ways you miss the mark are themselves gifts of God, our very baptisms can confound us for the pain of the brokenness and struggles we see but cannot simply, for seeing, change by ourselves. And Facebook can inflame the muscle spasm of the soul, but it cannot speak its healing. Nor does it know the stakes of the pain it inflames. But you know the stakes. Not decency or reputation. But life that participates in God’s mending of the world. And that participation begins with the commandments. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. But not in the way you think. Your participation in God’s mending of the world does not begin with your doing these things. It begins with Jesus’ doing these things. While you and I were still broken and a mess (way back then and an hour ago), he loved you as the neighbor he loved as himself. The law and the prophets hang on these two commandments because the law and the prophets hang on Jesus. May we learn, with God’s help, to do the same.