When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked a question to test Jesus. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'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.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
"If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Did you hear it—how this story begins? This guy incites a legal debate with Jesus. In fact, Jesus is often baited into various forms of debates throughout the gospel stories. Debates are on all our minds these days, right? At least for me, when I watch the bits that I do, I want to shout, “just answer the question, already!!” Because we know well, a trick in debate is to answer the question you want to answer, not the one asked of you.
But Jesus doesn’t do that, he doesn’t need to. He answers as plainly as can be. The greatest commandment? Simple: Love God. Love Neighbor. Only, it’s not simple, and Jesus knows this. There’s another version of this exchange with a lawyer trying to justify himself by asking Jesus to define his neighbor, exactly. That’s when Jesus offers the beautiful tale of the Good Samaritan- you know, showing mercy to a foreigner who is suffering.
But in today’s text, Jesus interrupts this impromptu debate by asking the type of question he knows NONE of them want to answer. "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" The question directs the skeptics to Jesus’ identity, his connection to God; and in so doing- Jesus transforms a debate into true dialogue—about the thing that matters most.
“God is love,” Jesus reminds them, “and God has sent me into the world so that LOVE will win. Never mind your need for debates, I will keep on loving everyone I meet.”
I think often of my role in public life these days. As a pastor, a parent, a cis-gender, straight white woman from SD. Here’s the question I ask myself: Where is my voice most reflective of Jesus’ priorities? We each answer this uniquely of course, but I find time and again, one election after another, the single most significant role I play in public life is this: to infuse more love into the world, to chase love more fervently today than yesterday, to inspire others to think more deeply about what Christ-like love can accomplish.
And before the skeptics roll their eyes at the term “love,” let me assure you this is not some sappy escape from the realities of seeking justice for the oppressed (which Jesus also claims as his purpose in his very first sermon from the temple). No, love is the FIRST WORK, because it informs how we live our values. Only love changes hearts. You know as well as I do, that loving folks who are different from me is THE single hardest part of being Christian. Sometimes I just cannot FATHOM why folks will do what they do, vote how they vote, and consider it good, maybe even Christian! In fact, I would challenge you to find something harder than loving your “proverbial” enemy.
Which is, of course, why Jesus gives this answer. “#1 rule you ask? Love. Love God. Love Neighbor. Do it, I dare you.” It often takes me a great deal of time to listen and consider effective public policies for the sake of the common good. It’s tricky, right? I mean, if it was simple to define how best to care for ourselves and our neighbors alike, we wouldn’t have such a deeply divided electorate.
Here’s where I start, because I believe it centers me in a course of Christ-like love. I listen to the stories of people whose perspectives are WAY different than mine. And I listen for that nugget of personal truth- the motivation behind the feeling or opinion someone holds. I believe this way of beginning dialogue (not debate) honors both the Love God and Love neighbor part of Jesus’ commandment.
Now I’m human, so the truth is, I don’t have enough love on my own to do this with any amount of grace for those with whom I disagree. So I need to back up for a minute. Before I can even do a decent job of listening to my neighbor, I need to first understand that God’s image exists in them. Do you know how that happens? How I can ‘get there’ in my mind? Prayer. To be in prayer is a fundamental orientation. It is a setting of the heart. It’s a connection to the author of love itself. It’s an opening to the truth that God exists in me, and God exists in you too. And that’s where we begin. Loving God comes first—it’s very important that we get the order right—because loving neighbor flows out of the practice of loving God (and really, loving ourselves). Only when we are familiar with God’s image within ourselves can we begin to see God’s image in our neighbor. The man holding a sign for spare change. The kid who steals your pick-up out of the driveway in Pierre, SD. The family member who belittles you, never a kind word shared. The person who gets the promotion when you know you earned it. The grumpy uncle. The woman who threatens to call the cops b/c your kids retrieve a ball that landed in her bushes. The politician who doesn’t pursue the goals of equity for all, preferring instead the voices of those who will bankroll a next campaign.
I know you’ve got neighbors to add to this list. And none of us will be able to respond in true love without beginning in prayer. Prayer, that setting of the heart, evolves within us over time, eventually changing our hearts, souls, and minds, as Jesus says. This is why Rich Melheim’s 4th Step in his Faith5 daily routine is pray! Pray for those you love, pray for God to show up in the world. Pray for direction on how you might embody divine love. Heck, if you’re brave like Jesus, pray for your enemy!
The power of prayer is the transformation that occurs in the process over days, months, years. If you’re a person of prayer, you know what I mean. It becomes harder to hate the person for whom we pray. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can even discover we can be the answer to our prayers. But this can’t happen if we subscribe to a limited love. There’s a big difference here between tribal love and true love. Tribal love says I will love my people, those in my orbit, the folks who think like me and believe like I do. My tribe, I’ll love them. Tribal love is limited at its best, and at its worst, it can lead to hate, simply because its limits define who deserves love and who doesn’t.
And it can’t be true love if it leads to hate. Never.
I recently had a family member create a deep rift in our relationship by clinging to a tribal understanding of love. One way to recognize tribalism is when derogatory names are used for folks who think differently than you. And let me say, it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of vicious names, simply for expressing alternative political solutions to the issues we all want to see resolved. But this happened to me a few months ago, and in an attempt to defend his name-calling (which we’ve all probably become de-sensitized to from an excess intake of sensationalized media), he says, “I don’t know how to form my thoughts well enough to debate you.”
And all along, all I’ve ever wanted from him, was respectful dialogue, never debate! For God’s sake, we’re family- and we both claim Christ at the center of our lives! Why the need for debate? We all know people’s minds aren’t changed as a result. Now sincere dialogue, beginning with that crucial element of deep listening? Yes, that CAN lead to transformation of the heart. But a lot of folks think debate is the only way to talk these days. It’s like we’ve forgotten that we can be wrong sometimes—and being wrong is not a failure, so long as we can apologize and move toward better understanding. We’re limited by what we don’t yet know, we’re limited by fear, we’re limited by this idea that we need to debate, to be exclusive, to render political opponents our enemies. And all the while, Jesus is pleading with us. Love God. Love neighbor.
Friends, it’s prayer that will prepare us for this hard work. Prayer is a setting of our hearts toward true love, away from divisive tribalism.
If you’re looking for a place to begin this practice of prayer, preferably in the company of others, I have a suggestion. It’s a simple prayer I began using with the kids when they were just tiny, as a way to form their little hearts of faith. Here it is: “Dear Jesus, thank you for your love that we share as a family, help us to share it with others too, amen.”
This prayer is a setting of the heart in two ways:
Finally, a second suggestion of where to begin is The Lord’s Prayer. When we lift this prayer, it begins to transform our hearts. Here’s my paraphrase, as we end together in prayer: Yeah, God, we rely on you. Of course, we want your kingdom love to reign. But it’s true, we’ve made bad choices along the way & we’ve been hurt by the bad choices of others. We always need direction back to love. This is our eternal connection and purpose: living to the glory of you, God. We love you, helps us love our neighbors too. Amen