When Facebook and other social media were first becoming popular it wasn’t too uncommon for someone to fill in the religion section of their profile with the word “love.” If you asked some of them what they meant like I did the answers boiled down to this. “God is love, so we should love.”
It sounds so simple doesn’t it? How can someone disagree with that? There are certainly Bible passages that would read similarly. How can you knock someone for wanting to be a good person or trying their best to love their neighbor? Their desire to be a good human being is certainly laudable, especially if by being “good”, they mean following the 10 Commandments.
The troublesome thing with saying your religion is just “love” is that it is an abstraction. Even saying “God is love” is abstract if you don’t qualify it with how you know God is love. When I asked my friends how they know God is love the responses were similar: “I don’t know. He just is.” Or “Well, I’m able to love, so it must have come from him.” Can you see how love in the abstract isn’t really that comforting? When love is just some generalization, an emotion, a feeling, or something that “just is”, how is it supposed to comfort when we have abused our neighbor, cheated our boss, or lost our child, spouse, or friend, or face our own death? Abstract love in those times can taste as saccharine as those chalky little valentine hearts with “be mine” printed on them. Love in the abstract can’t comfort, can’t help, can’t protect, and can’t save.
Imagine a husband who writes his wife beautiful poems and speaks eloquently of his love, but refuses to pick up the kids from school, or walk the dog, or hold her when she cries, or always seems to have a business trip planned when they’re supposed to visit her parents. She won’t care about his love in the abstract. It’s useless.
The Pharisees in our gospel lesson came to Jesus with a question. It was one of their favorite exercises. Let’s talk about the greatest commandment. They’d sit about and speak eloquently of why one may be more important than another. Even more they would imply with their philosophizing and pontifications that they kept this commandment—it made them feel like holy people. Most of all it was safe. They could keep the conversation in the world of abstractions—all talk, no bite, the commandments as an exercise in the abstract. They invite Jesus to join their game.
I’ll put it simply. Jesus does not play the game nicely. He doesn’t let them think that their religious abstraction game is good enough. He does not throw around clichés like we can when we say words like “God” and “love.” In fact Jesus goes straight for the jugular of the Pharisees, this is a kill shot, he damns them with their own question in a just a few short words. They want to know which is the greatest Commandment, but Jesus won’t pick one, two, or three—he picks them all. He summarizes the first three commandments by saying: ““You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” And then he summarize the rest when he says: “And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
If you think good people will go to heaven than this kind of preaching from Jesus is going to disappoint you. It’s not the kind of preaching our itchy ears hope for. It doesn’t dazzle. It doesn’t make for popular television preaching. It delivers the whole Law. You must be undivided and love God above everything else. That means you know God not as an abstraction, but as a person. That means you listen to his voice at all times and never once transgress what he commands. You must not be distracted in heart and mind. And the first commandment informs the second. If you love God than you also will love your neighbor perfectly, with equal devotion. You will never let a friend down. You will keep every promise. You won’t skip class in disobedience to your teachers. You will never tell a white lie to your boss to gain their favor. You won’t speak a harsh word or ever talk about someone else when it is out of turn.
Perfect love toward God and toward your neighbor is what’s required. If even a portion of your heart, soul, or mind is withheld from the Lord, you don’t love Him. If you felt slighted when a friend did not help you, but avoided eye contact and withheld compassion from that stranger then you have not loved God and you have not loved your neighbor as yourself. If there is even one thing you would do for yourself but not for your neighbor, or have done for yourself but denied to your neighbor, you love neither neighbor nor Lord. Repent.
Jesus would not allow the Commandments to remain in the abstract. He gave them teeth and when sinners encounter them we are bitten. Yet, we can be thankful that Jesus does not leave matters there. He has compassion on the Pharisees and on us. And this compassion is not abstract, it is real, and it is tangible.
The overall well done English Standard Version translation does a disservice in our reading this morning. When Jesus concludes explaining the greatest commandment he does not exactly say, “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” He actually says, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” He’s using a Hebraism, the word “hang”, is reference to the hanging of a dead body defeated in battle. It’s the same word the New Testament uses for crucify. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
He’s giving them and us a hint about his question that follows. He asks about the Messiah. They all knew the Christ would be David’s Son, but how can David also call this Anointed One, Lord? The Psalm actually says “Yahweh” by the way, that is David calls the Messiah the divine name of God. Jesus is being their teacher now and lovingly showing them that the Messiah to come is both David’s Son, true man, and David’s Lord, true God. This in fact is the Messiah to whom all the Law and the Prophets testify would come to save the people from all their enemies. God would come not in the abstract, but with skin on—God in Christ Jesus.
On these two commandment hang all the Law and the Prophets. Christ is telling us why he came into the world. He came to hang. To be crucified for those who are condemned by the commandments. To fulfill them by loving God, not in the abstract, but with his very life. To fulfill them by loving his neighbor, not as an abstraction, but hanging on two pieces of wood and between two criminals. He did not come down as a heavenly platitude singing “roses are red, violets are blue…” Rather he came as love incarnate—love that would bleed for you—love that can actually save you from what you deserve. He is your substitute. He is the husband that love in word and deed. He lays down his life—he hangs to suffer your fall. He forgives you and he delivers this forgiveness to you in real and tangible ways now. The word of forgiveness preached into your ears. The Baptism applied to you. In his real bodily presence at the table of the Holy Communion given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Christianity is the religion of love. It does not speak in eloquent clichés though. God’s Word teaches, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for ours sins.” (1 Joh. 4:10). Love is found in God before it is ever found anywhere else, for “God is love.” (4:8). When we know the love of God in Christ who laid his life down for us (3:16) then, and only then, can we talk about our love: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (4:16). It is important to remember that Jesus’ love is not just an example to follow, but the greatest love possible, the love which saves us from sin and death (Rom. 5:8). This distinguishes Christianity from any other religion that claims the virtue of love. The Christian religion is about God’s love first and the giving of that love through the cross of Christ.
As we receive this love from Jesus by faith the same love becomes a power in our lives. He who believes is “Born of God and knows God.” (1 Joh.4:7). When our hearts are opened to the love of God by faith in Jesus we are overwhelmed and captured by it. Not so fully that we cease to be sinners that need forgiveness, but so that we can honestly say with St. Peter, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” (Joh. 21:17).
In + Jesus’ name, amen.
Rev. Eric M. Estes
Indeed! Love is an action word in the Bible, and I don’t believe it is a virtue. Man, you pinged this one on the head. I’m grateful for how you articulated that God is really the subject of the verb, love, always. What a great entry into this subject, by the way. How would you tweak this message for an all unbelieving audience?
Thanks for the comments Mark. There are so many questions to answer for an unbelieving audience, but I would include more illustrations comparing and contrasting abstract and tangible love. More time would have to be given to what Christians mean when we say our love is imperfect and we can’t fulfill the Law. I’m sure some even in a Christian audience would struggle to see how simple things like “skipping class” in disobedience to the fourth commandment is unloving behavior. If I had more time I would have spoken more about what we could affirm in a person who wants to be loving, but also compare and contrast that to what God says is loving. The world’s understanding of love is so abstract nowadays it may be helpful to point out how a relativistic view of the world does not satisfy our need for love and love is ultimately objective in the person and work of Christ. Chime in with your thoughts and suggestions if you’d like. Thanks again! – Eric Estes