1 John 5:1-6
For the love of God is this,
that we obey His commandments.
-1 John 5:3
We probably think first of the Ten Commandments. (Do you have them memorized?) Many of you will remember the gospel stories in which someone brings up the question, What is the greatest Commandment, and the answer was a summary of the Old Testament commandments. If your memory is a bit fuzzy about how the story goes, you are in good company: the story is told differently in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
If you read the story in Mark 12 or Matthew 22, a religious lawyer asks Jesus a question, and Jesus immediately replies with his answer, quoting from the Jewish Law books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
If instead you read the story as it is told in Luke 10, there Jesus turns the question back to the man who asked it, demanding, “What is written in the Law? How do you read [it]?” (Luke 10:26). According to Luke, the religious lawyer answers Jesus with the same Scriptures Jesus quoted in Matthew and Mark’s accounts, and Jesus simply tells him, “You have answered right: do this and you will live.”
The commandment mentions one’s “neighbor.” According to Luke, when that religious lawyer felt embarrassed by Jesus’ way of putting the question back on him, he turned around and tried again to put Jesus on the spot. He wanted to test Jesus, not to be tested, himself! That’s when he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus told him the story we call “the Good Samaritan.”
You remember that in Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan, the good guy turns out to be a foreigner, of a different religion! In fact, for Jews in those days who believed in worshiping God at Jerusalem, a “Samaritan” was exactly the type of person one would avoid at all costs.
If Jesus were telling the story in our day, instead of a Samaritan, he might say... an Afghan Taliban fighter — ? ... a Black Lives Matter activist from California – ? Anyhow, the point is, the person we are commanded to “love as we love ourselves” turns out to be somebody we might prefer not to think about at all, much less “love.”
In the end, the lawyer who kept trying to challenge Jesus about God’s commandments had to go away in shame, hard-headed and hard-hearted.
Here, today, in this community around Bethel, there are people who are kind-hearted and others who are hard-hearted toward our neighbors. Ask any handicapped or shut-in or poor person about their daily life— how they’re really doing— and you will learn how folks dish out to them both great love and great neglect; both extraordinary kindness and remarkable cruelty. When we read Jesus’ words for those he will judge (in Matthew 25:31-46), I suggest that we think carefully: Where IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD are the people Jesus was calling “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” ? Because they are here.
More unselfish, godly love— the King James Bible uses the word, ‘charity’— is always needed within the church as well. We sometimes find that folks who are very familiar to each other can also be very unkind to each other.
Our gospel lesson this week deals with both love and commandments: Jesus commands his followers to “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). This is the ultimate neighborhood improvement project: for us to live as a model, or a ‘foretaste,’ of the blessed love which we hope to enjoy in God’s kingdom.
Isn’t it an awesome conflict of interest, that God should be the Judge of the human race who are so close to His heart ? But God is the ultimate Authority, and the Law itself is “Love.”
...let the mountains together
sing gladly before the LORD,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He judges the world in justice,
and peoples righteously.
- Psalm 98:8-10, Robert Alter’s translation, 2007