Scripture for Sunday, 29 October:
Deuteronomy 34.1-12; Psalm 90.1-6,13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2.1-8; Matthew 22.34-45
“Love God and love your neighbour as yourself,” said Jesus. It sounds simple enough. Yet our record is rather patchy at best. As for what it means to love God – well there are many ways in which people have tried to do so.
For 1500 years, longer in some denominations, one way that people tried to show love for God was in the decoration of their churches, which was often done by expecting poor people to contribute. This was one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation in 1517: Martin Luther was appalled to find clergy in Rome and in other centres of the church living prosperous, lavish lives at the expense of ordinary, poor parishioners.
He had a point, yet my inner Luther was stunned into silence along the Camino de Santiago by the realisation that it was often the free choice of parishioners in quite small villages to show their love for God by making a house of worship into a glorious place of celebration. However, this cannot be the only way to show our love for God.
Careful inspection of the words of the gospel passage in which Jesus simplified “all the law and the prophets” reveals use of the same Greek word, agape, for love of human and love of God. In other words the love of neighbour is expected to be of the same substance and level as love of God. And the word agape, which is also used to describe the love that God has for humanity, carries connotations of compassion and caring. In other words, if we really love God and we want to respond faithfully to God’s abundant love for us, then part of that response has to be to treat our neighbours with respect and compassion.
And who are our neighbours? Through the development of Jesus’ message in the gospel, at this point it has already been established that there cannot be exclusions in that regard – Jesus went so far as to include even “enemies” as neighbours. There is no room for denying or despising our neighbour.
The first century biblical context has little room for such modern concepts as self-esteem or self-love; yet equally, Jesus told no one to love their neighbour more than themselves, and so the life of faith has to live in a useful and pragmatic middle ground between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-abuse (and there is plenty of space in that middle ground).
We have a long way to go. We have, by our action and our inaction, built a world in which the deck is stacked against the poor, and serving God with our heart, soul, and mind means that we are called to apply everything that we have – our voice, our political power, our financial resources – to live out God’s mission of reconciliation and redemption for all the world. This requires us to develop a vision of what it is that we wish to accomplish with our lives, which I suppose can be called a vision of glory.
Because the love of neighbour begins with the conviction that there is glory within our own frailty. This is not a glory of our own making, nor is it determined by the controlling powers of this world. It is pure gift.
That is a message that has its roots in the early church’s understanding of the glory of Jesus and the way that it has been inherited by the church. Not a grudging admission: “You’ll do,” but a bold assertion: “You are dust bound for glory.” And that means us, just as much as the early Christians came to understand its application to themselves – even if the admission comes with something of an awe-inspiring burden of responsibility.
We do indeed have some way to go to fulfil the responsibility of God’s vision as stated in Christ’s words. What vision can we bring to improving the well-being of the world and God’s people, showing love for God by the way we love God’s people, remembering that the word used in the gospel, agape, carries powerful connotations of care and compassion?