High drama and a cheering crowd follow Jesus on his final entrance into Jerusalem. On his way home, he stops by the Temple, causing such a scene he gets the undivided attention of the religion police and makes front page of the afternoon Jerusalem Times. When he returns the next day, authorities are waiting for him, armed with tricky questions. To pick up on a popular sport, chief priests and elders throw the first pitch. He knocks their trap into the bleachers – and the crowd goes wild. Next some junior Pharisees and Herodians are called in. Same result. Sadducees now take the mound. Jesus blasts their fastball out of the Temple. Finally the Pharisees arrive – with a lawyer to toss Jesus one more test.
But he is not our kind of lawyer, one who inspires jokes like: “Why won’t sharks attack lawyers? – Answer: professional courtesy.” (Lawyers who are members of St. Paul’s Church are exempted from this pejorative joke.) Lawyers in Jesus’ day were Bible scholars, enforcing God’s rules. Here’s his pitch: “Which commandment is the greatest?” Out of 613 laws, Jesus is supposed to pick just one? With sleight of hand, Jesus reaches back to Deuteronomy: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your mind.” Who could disagree? Even backsliding Jews know this one. Then Jesus adds, “And love your neighbor as yourself,” a command from Leviticus. Jesus is on a roll, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” And with that addition, Jesus sums up the whole law, which he really wasn’t supposed to do. He’s practicing religion without a license. The law and prophets hang with the Pharisees, scribes and lawyers. In essence Jesus says we are known not by rules we keep, but by the love we live. He just changed the playing field, and they don’t like it a bit.
Some years ago at the onset of Lent, I became stuck on a question: “How do I love God?” What does Jesus mean when he says we are to love God? I know I am supposed to love God – but I don’t have a lot of emotion about it. How do we conjure up feelings for a mysterious being, ineffable, never fully explained, too large for our minds? We love family members – or at least most of them; friends, a good book, a fine wine – things we see. We give gifts, cards and spend time together to show love, without thinking a lot about it. I kept wondering – but what about God whom I don’t see? Am I just saying words of love mindlessly – “Oh, sure I love you, God.” But what does loving God mean?
Merely asking the question brings God forefront into our awareness. Contrary to some popular belief, we don’t invite God or Jesus into our hearts. God has been there all along. Now ask yourself, “Do I seriously want to know this presence that is within me without invitation? Do I want to be in relationship with God? Is God is safe to trust, loves us as we’re told?” First we need to know God to love God. Knowing God requires a leap of faith – an act of will and trust. To grow in relationship with God – to more deeply experience God, we commit ourselves to serious Bible study. We take time daily to listen for God’s spirit more than telling God stuff. We commit to be with others faithfully in worship each week, share our stories of God’s presence in our lives, support and pray for others, and through spiritual disciplines like stewardship, realize that our gratitude to God is expressed with our gifts for the good of others. As we more and more inhabit God’s life – God inhabits ours. God is gently transforming us into people ready to love others. Love for God is personal, for sure, but never private. Love is seen by action in our community and in the world – We act in love to others as an expression of our love to God.
Here’s where loving God gets messy. We love God with as an act of will not just our emotions. We don’t wait until we feel like, or someone treats us nicely. We decide we will love others unconditionally. We’ll fall short, but we keep trying. As we grow in God’s love, we love God in return by acting with love toward others, just as we know God loves us. We pray for their well-being, even enemies, those who wish us harm, and those we don’t like. We listen carefully and gently to others without trying to fix them. We can admit when we are wrong, and don’t need to defend ourselves. We own up. We confess. We make amends. We speak truth in love, and encourage the best in others. We respect the dignity of everyone. We love God by showing compassion to those who need it and love to those who are made to think they don’t deserve God’s love. It’s as simple as a person who recently lost a loved one, spending time listening to someone who is about to lose a love one. Others love God by telling His story when asked – and inviting others to inhabit God’s life – because they are filled with love for God, not fear of punishment if they don’t. By our actions we show and know our love for God.
Wanting to fulfill all the law and prophets is probably not as high a priority for us as for those in Jesus’ day. It boils down to this: “all we need is love,” as the old Beatles song says – for God whose love, when the channels are open, flows into loving acts for one other. Faith – keeping the commands, in the end is about relationships – and if we get relationships right, the rest will fall into place nicely.