I wonder whether you have heard the story of the churchgoer who wanted to abolish the Old Testament. His argument was that Jesus said, “Hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Well, Jesus did say, “Hang all the Law and the Prophets”, but the problem with the argument was that the man quoted Jesus out of context. Jesus says these words when he is asked what the greatest commandment is, and his reply goes like this:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is, you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. [Emphasis added]
You can’t abolish the Old Testament, then. Jesus said it contained the two greatest commandments.
And today’s Lectionary takes us to the second of these commandments: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
So, for only the second time in over thirty years of preaching, I find myself preaching on a text from Leviticus! It might not be a book we would rush to preach from usually, but whatever its reputation for obscure Jewish dietary laws and the like, it also contains this commandment and a host of other commandments that enshrine God’s commitment to compassion and justice. And it all gets summed up at the end of our first reading with these words: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (verse 18).
How, then, do we explore these famous words? I suggest that if the basis of loving our neighbour is the way we love ourselves, then I’m going to start with what it means in biblical terms to love ourselves and work back to loving our neighbour from there.
First of all, then, loving ourselves. It seems to me there are two equal and opposite errors into which we can fall in appreciating the assumption that we love ourselves. One is the assumption often made in our society today, and perhaps encapsulated by that dreadful series of adverts from the world’s largest cosmetics company, L’Oreal. Beginning with famous actresses closing the ads with the words, “Because I’m worth it”, they changed it in the middle of the last decade to “Because you’re worth it.” Then in 2009 they modified it again to “Because we’re worth it.”
You get the message? I am so good and so deserving that I should have the very best. It’s something that in a different way politicians have picked up on. They talk about welfare benefits as something that the right people deserve. It makes me out to be so good and perfect that the last thing you would dare to do is criticise me. The Christian notion of sin is entirely absent. There is nothing about responsibility, it is all about rights. As such, it’s unreliable as a gauge for understanding how God loves us, and we can only base love for ourselves on the way God loves us.
The opposite error takes this to the other extreme. It is what some people have called ‘worm theology’. It is the approach that says, “Lord, I am worth no more than a worm, because I am only a terrible sinner.” It is an attitude to life that leads to low self-esteem and even self-hatred, quite the opposite of ‘Because I’m worth it.’
At first glance this might seem to take seriously the Christian doctrine of sin, but it actually distorts the Christian view of God’s love for people. It makes it sound like the Cross of Christ is no more than the appeasing of an angry God, and not an expression of God’s sacrificial love in Christ.
So – loving ourselves can neither be based on “I’m wonderful”, nor on “I’m terrible.” What can it rest on, then? I believe it requires a big picture of the way God views us, and when we appreciate that, we shall be free to love ourselves healthily.
I believe it goes something like this. It begins not with sin, but with the fact that God made human beings in his image. Now whatever it means to be made in the image of God, and I’m not going to touch that this morning, what is clear is that it means that God accords human beings a special, indeed unique, dignity. It speaks of the amazing value that God puts on us.
Yes, we go on from there to speak about sin and the rupture it causes in our relationship with a holy God. But we also bring into play the fact that this holy God sets out on the journey of redemption, because his love is not incompatible with his holiness. He even gives up his only begotten Son for us. He draws us to himself by his Holy Spirit, and when we respond in faith to him through Jesus Christ, that Spirit comes to dwell within our lives.
All in all, it’s very Trinitarian: we are loved by the Father, redeemed by the Son and indwelt by the Spirit. This is the measure of God’s love for us.
Now when we know we are deeply loved, what does that do for us? A friend of mine who has suffered for much of her life with depression once told me that nothing boosted her sense of self-worth more than remembering that her husband had wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. In the midst of her illness, that knowledge gave her dignity.
So it is with the love of God. Because we are so wonderfully loved by God – extravagantly and sacrificially – we may love ourselves. It isn’t that self-love becomes self-indulgence, for then it would stand contrary to the love of God. But it is that we have an amazing sense of wonder and value. It is a firm foundation for life. We can begin to achieve a balance of taking proper care of ourselves, but also being ready to show that same sacrificial love of God to others.
All of which leads to the second part of our thinking, the part where the rubber hits the road – loving our neighbours. Now I don’t know about you, but when we are faced with something as stark and absolute in the Scriptures as ‘love your neighbour’, this is probably the time I want to start wriggling about the meaning. We know that some of the rabbis set complicated definitions about who was a neighbour and who wasn’t. In today’s Gospel passage Jesus is clearly aware of people who want to distort the plain meaning of Leviticus. He talks about those who twist the verse to say, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’ (Matthew 5:43), thus adding something to Holy Writ in order to undermine its meaning. We know, too, that this wasn’t the only time he faced this issue, since the lawyer who heard him proclaim the need to love one’s neighbour then wanted to justify himself by asking, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ and in response he tells that most shocking of parables about the Good Samaritan. Leviticus puts it bluntly, and Jesus won’t let anybody get out of the implications.
Why should it be that Leviticus and Jesus allow no limitations or exceptions on the definition of ‘neighbour’? Could it be ultimately that the same things which apply to us about God’s love for us also apply to every single human being? I think so.
In other words, it is not just me who is made in the image of God. You are, and everyone is, even our enemies, whoever they may be. All people are offered redemption in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit is wooing all people to find faith in Jesus and follow him. Everyone has the same extraordinary dignity in the sight of God.
And that means anybody in need is our neighbour when it comes to the command to love. We can’t pick and choose simply the people who appeal to us, or who are like us. It includes the people we are ambivalent about, and even those we actively dislike. Our neighbours include our enemies.
However, that is not to say that we should be glib about the question of offering neighbour love to enemies. I receive a weekly devotional email from an American pastor called Brian Jones. In this week’s email, he talked about this very issue. He described the problem of reconciling all the Psalms that display anger and ask God to wreak vengeance on enemies with Jesus’ command to love our enemies. He talked of an occasion when he preached a sermon about it, one of his best, he thought, in showing how in his opinion the words of Jesus trumped the angry words of the Psalms.
After the service, though, he was brought down to earth with heavy bruising. A man spoke to him and said, ‘What would you say to me, then? This week I have pressed charges against a man who molested my son.’
Brian Jones said he realised that sometimes we can only get through to that point of loving even our enemies when we have fully felt our anger first.
You may consider this ‘love of enemies’ talk a bit of a detour from the basic ‘love your neighbour’ theme, but in fact it’s like what some people call the ‘worst case scenario’. It’s the hardest variation on love of neighbour. If we can work on this, other aspects of loving our neighbours will fall into place.
What all this talk of loving our neighbour as ourselves comes down to in the end is about being Christlike. Loving our neighbour as ourselves is about seeing people as Christ sees them. It is about having Christ’s heart for them. It is about thinking and acting like Christ. The plastic bracelets with the initials ‘WWJD’ – ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ – may have seemed cheesy, but they make a point.
So if we want to know what love of neighbour looks like, then view Jesus healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Or see him crossing boundaries to talk to a Samaritan woman or heal a Roman centurion’s servant.
If we want to know what neighbour love looks like, go more than anywhere else to the Cross. See him caring for his mother and the disciple he loved, while dying. See him forgiving the penitent thief. See him asking the Father to forgive those who put him on the Cross – and all the while dying for their sins, for your sins and for mine.
Yes, Jesus looks on people as made in God’s image. He sees the damage caused by sin and by being sinned against and sets out on his mission of redeeming love. When he returns to heaven from that mission, he bestows the gift of the Holy Spirit on those who put their faith in him and follow him.
He has the right, then, to tell us not to resist evildoers, to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. He had the right to remind us not only to greet only our own brothers and sisters.
Walking this way may seem uncongenial and even impossible. But Jesus gives us the power to do so through the gift of the Holy Spirit. And he gives us motivation to love neighbours, even our enemies, when we consider how much he loves us and how much he has forgiven us.
Thus may we have the grace to live differently in our world.