St. Mary Nanoose Bay

October 25, 2020

Matthew 22:34-46  

Your word lights our way. Amen.  

With today’s reading from Matthew, we come to the end of the verbal challenges put to Jesus in the effort to trap him. The Sadducees, lawyers, chief priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, and their disciples have all confronted him. But Jesus is wise to their motivation. They want to discredit him in the eyes of the people. But there is nothing to discredit! So the challengers give up. Yes, they finally are stumped, but now their line of attack will change – they will bring Jesus down with force. And if we follow what happens next, we will follow Jesus down the path to the cross.

Why? Because Jesus professes LOVE above all else. And LOVE is a powerful force. It requires truth and integrity and confronts the lack of these qualities in the people who constantly challenge him. These people don’t want love – they want power, status and wealth. And they use their own religion to bolster themselves and burden others.

So today it’s the Pharisees’ time to challenge Jesus, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” and Jesus recites back to them the law as they know from their beginnings as the nation of Israel. We know it from Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” When Jesus adds,  “This is the first and the great commandment,” we know another commandment coming.

Jesus is not talking about the feeling kind of love but rather a covenantal love that recognizes the quality of love God has for Israel – a total, complete, compassionate kind of love that is inclusive. And the love response required is, again, not an emotional kind of love, but an active kind. Jesus spells exactly how this action is to take place when he continues, “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” We are to express this expansive, inclusive love in all our relationships; with ourselves and with everyone we come into contact with. This is profound wisdom and spiritual direction.

In a few short sentences, we know exactly how our lives are to be shaped and lived out - we are to depend on, and receive, God’s love and support and express our gratitude by the way we treat ourselves and each other.

Simple?  Yes. Easy to live out? No. But maybe that’s not a fair way of summing it up. Of course it’s not easy if we expect immediate success. But if we commit to a life-long practice we will see change. We are promised that.   We work on ourselves and we work on our relationships. But first we spend time with God, because the wisdom and support God imparts informs how well we learn to love.

In this time and in this culture, our willingness to devote ourselves to love seems to depend on the “return aspect.” We let externals determine our capacity for love. If we don’t like how we are treated, we write people off, we hold grudges, we are judgmental. We don’t value God’s creation as we consider some people as collateral damage as we cling to a lifestyle that hurts and impoverishes others. We devote our time and attention to those whom we feel good about, those who “give back,” those we deem worthy.

This is not the kind of love God shows us. For God makes the rain to fall and the sun to shine on everyone. This love is intentional; it is not the kind of love that is dependent on what others do, say or feel.

I’ve told this story before but it’s worth telling again…. it’s the story of a marriage gone sideways. Every marriage has its tendency to fall into patterns – healthy ones or otherwise. Anyways, in this relationship, after 20 years the husband had become very critical of his wife who had raised their children and worked in the home. He rarely said thank you, always mentioned what he didn’t like and never seemed to be satisfied. In response, the wife grew very quiet. One day, the husband changed. He started to say “thank you,” he helped with the dishes, he commented on how cozy the house felt, and he asked his wife out for dinner. She was very suspicious. In the past, her husband had never done something without looking for what was in it for him. So she continued doing what she always did, but was unsettled, felt out of balance as her husband continued to offer love, support, kindness and generosity. The man was so consistent in his behaviour that the wife began to believe that maybe his change of heart was real and she began to unthaw. He was delighted. And slowly their marriage returned to the way it had been in the beginning. What had changed his heart? The change came from within. Why? He never told his wife. He just apologized for the person he had become and reassured her that it wasn’t her fault or responsibility. He had just decided to become a bigger and better person. And hoped that she would welcome him back. Regardless of the outcome, he was going to be the person he knew he could be. He wanted to like himself. And he was lucky, he got a second chance.

Our behaviour is not dependent on other people’s behaviour. This is our freedom and our responsibility – to be the kind of person we want to be. God challenges us to see everyone as having value; each worthy of compassionate and support.

It’s easy to think what’s important to me:

I like to be treated with respect.

I yearn to be understood.

When I do foolish things to fit it or belong, I don’t want to be judged.

I want to know that I can make mistakes without being condemned.

I want to be able to receive and give forgiveness and move on.

I wish I could be accepted just as I am.

I really like it when people take the time to look beyond my appearance, my affluence (or lack thereof) and my achievements.

If these things are important to me, it’s easy to think others want them too!

When I was active as a volunteer counsellor in a non-profit in Victoria years ago, I began to notice how harsh clients were on themselves. They would say the most derogatory and judgmental things about themselves. One day I said to a client: “You’ve said some pretty harsh things about yourself just now. I want you to imagine that I am your dear friend. I am saying the same things to you – ‘I’m such a loser, I always screw up, no wonder no one likes me, I can never forgive myself.’

Hearing all this, what would you say to this friend?” The person got very still. And after a long minute or two, said something like, “Don’t talk about yourself like that! You’re just human, and you’re in pain. Be gentle and be kind to yourself!”  Ahhh, point made!

This is the way we can start to love ourselves - by the way our friends love us. This is the way we begin to treat ourselves as we would treat others.

This second commandment turns us upside down. In the divine exchange, we can’t treat others poorly and ourselves well. Conversely, we can’t treat ourselves poorly and others well. We have to be consistent. When we judge ourselves, it’s easy to judge others. When we are kind to ourselves, it’s easy to be kind to others.

This second commandment brings our contradictory behaviour to our awareness. And we realize how interconnected we are. If we hold on to a grudge, the anger we cling to streams through our circulatory system and hurts us. If we are always critical of others, we lose out on valuable learnings and opportunities. Judging ourselves and others hardens our hearts, our souls, our minds and makes us weak.

Discipline is the way through. Discipline grounded in prayer and founded in trust and faith. Faith that this way of living is precisely what God wants for us. Because in loving others and ourselves, we enter into the realm of God’s love. We become part of the divine exchange that builds up, encourages, and nurtures life to its fullest.  

Discipline means looking at our sins, at the places where we are stuck. Do we hide behind our titles, do we use our intellect to exclude others, are we afraid to be vulnerable and ask for help, do we hide behind our anger or sarcasm? Where are we lacking in integrity and honesty?

Jesus came to show us the way to live out the commandments. He shows us that it is love that will see us through. Not emotional love, but intentional, inclusive love. Jesus walks with us if we let him.

Jesus shows us the kind of love that shows up in action: in the way we treat others, the way we treat ourselves, the way we offer ourselves, and the honesty and integrity with which we live.

This is a life time project: to love God and love others as ourselves. This is the spiritual journey spelled out clearly in so few words.

Let us open our eyes, ears and hearts to receive the love that is freely given to us, and let us devote our hearts, souls, minds and strength to learn more about who we are and how to express this essential love at the root of who we are. Amen.