Text: Matthew 22:36-39
The Pharisees … tried to trap him with a question. “Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself.’”
Loving God and one another.
A production that I have seen performed by professionals as well as secondary school teens is Fiddler on the Roof. The play is set in an impoverished Russian village, Anatevka, populated largely by Jewish families, at a time when Russia was ruled by the Tsar. The people of the village had a simple faith. They heard little news of the outside world and their lives were governed strictly by their age-old traditions.
As the curtain opens for the first act, the attention of the audience is drawn to the roof of a house on the stage. A violin begins a haunting tune and the shadow of a fiddler, violin tucked under his chin, is seen playing and dancing gaily on the roof.
The lights come on the stage and the first person we meet is Tevye the dairy farmer. His opening words go something like this. “A fiddler on the roof? Sounds crazy no?… You might say that every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck … It isn’t easy! … How can we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word. Tradition! Because of our tradition we have kept our balance for years … Because of our tradition everyone knows who he is and what God expects of him…. Tradition! Tradition! Without our tradition, our life would be as shaky as… as … as a fiddler on the roof!”
Like Tevye, the Pharisees knew that without Israel’s traditions life would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof. Like Tevye, they knew the importance of knowing who we are and what God expects of us and so they ask Jesus, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered by giving the traditional answer from the Old Testament, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself.’
There is nothing new in Jesus’ answer. This is not something original. In Jewish writings long before Jesus’ time, these two commandments summarised the whole of the law. A Jewish lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life (Luke 10:27). So Jesus asked him, “What do the Scriptures say? The lawyer gives the answer that every child was taught form an early age, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
Every Pharisee, every Jew – even Tevye the dairy farmer in the village of Anatevka – knew those words. These words are the essence, the beginning and the ending of the Jewish piety. In Deuteronomy we read, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” These words were to be recalled in the morning and in the evening. They were to be taught to the children. And they were recited just before the moment of death.
“And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself,” Jesus continued. Jesus went to the heart of the Pharisees’ tradition. He quoted the Law in Leviticus dealing with right conduct toward the neighbour. He went on, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The Pharisees wanted to find out where Jesus stood in regard to the traditional faith, the faith of the fathers. And in his reply, we find that Jesus had a great respect for tradition. He goes to the very heart of the Jewish faith and quotes passages of the Old Testament. Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we hear that Jesus hasn’t come to do away with Israel’s faith. We hear him say, “Do not think that I have come to do away with the Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets … but to make their teachings come true. Remember that as long as heaven and earth last, not the least point nor smallest detail of the Law will be done away with – not until the end of all things” (Matt 5:17). Jesus has great respect for the traditional faith, but not necessarily the traditional interpretation of the Pharisees.
The Jewish idea of responsibility when it came to which people were to be loved went like this. Everyone was to love God – that was compulsory. But everyone else was given a rating as to how much love they were to receive. There were those people to whom it was a responsibility to show love. Those on the outer circles of the community, like lepers, sinners, tax collectors, Gentiles, Samaritans etc, some were to be loved less, or others were owed no love whatsoever. The Pharisees had established a multitude of laws to help people in their observance of this command. These laws told people whom they were to love, and whom they could ignore.
By saying that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love your neighbour, gives a new slant to the traditional interpretation. To love God that was clear enough but to also say to love one another in the same breath puts both of these commands on an equal footing. One is not more important than the other. Both are compulsory. To love God is to love my neighbour and to truly love my neighbour is to love God. The command to love our enemies might seem to be crazy and impossible but it fits right in here with God’s love for us and our love for God. The Bible says, “If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. … The command that Christ has given us is this: whoever loves God must love others also” (I John 4:20-21).
It’s quite clear that loving God and loving our neighbour are inseparable. You cannot claim to love God if you don’t love your neighbour. Essentially the entire law of God can be boiled down to two simple commandments: Love God with your whole being; and love whomever God puts next to you as you love yourself.
The late Henry Hamann said in his book on Matthew’s Gospel: “Jesus does not separate love for God from love for man, since the latter flows from the former, and since without the latter the former is impossible”.*
Before we go any further we need to understand what Jesus means here when he uses the word love. That little four letter word “love” in English is used in many contexts. We talk about loving our dog, loving strawberries and ice-cream, or loving our latest heart throb. When we use the word love like that we are expressing our affection and the warm feelings we have for whatever it is that we are loving. Because we associate the word “love” with affection it’s no wonder that we have difficulty loving those people who annoy us, those who have hurt us, and those who don’t deserve to be loved. When someone is really annoying us and we lose that warm feeling, we give up “loving” that person.
When the Bible talks about love it is really talks about a love that keeps on loving, it involves commitment. We may have warm feelings of gratitude to God when we consider all that he has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Jesus is demanding of us. It is stubborn, unwavering commitment. It follows then that to love one another, including our enemies, doesn’t mean we must feel affection for them, rather it means a commitment on our part to take their needs seriously, just as God committed himself to taking our needs seriously by sending his Son into this world.
You see this in marriages where the aging process leaves one partner physically incapacitated, difficult to live with, very demanding, and yet the other partner keeps on caring, showing patience, extremely forgiving and dealing with all the difficulties. That’s coming close to the biblical idea of love. It’s that commitment even though it’s really hard. It’s that stubborn, unwavering commitment to the other person’s needs often at a great sacrifice to him/herself.
Whether we are talking about a marriage, involvement with a church or friendships – everything is fine while we have those warm feelings but when those warm feelings fade so does the relationship. You see, warm feelings without any commitment are very temporary.
The kind of love that Jesus is talking about in his answer to the Pharisees doesn’t come naturally. Putting it into practice is something we have to work on. Love – commitment – is a deliberate action of the will. To love means deliberately to turn toward another person and their needs, to give away something of ourselves to someone else without thinking of what we will get in return.
In Luke’s Gospel Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 15:25-37) we see an example of a man loving his enemy, committing his money, time and energy to seeing to the needs of the man lying in the gutter. He stopped to help and to hang with the consequences. All he could see was someone in need. This kind of love/commitment is self-sacrificing. It is putting the other person first, whether it is God or our neighbour.
In all honesty, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise that this kind of love has been in short supply in our lives. In fact, if we could love perfectly then there would be no more sin in our world. If we could love perfectly, if we could be able to be truly committed to other people, then there would be no more violence, or war; what we say and do would only be gentle, kind and caring.
Because this is not the case Jesus came to pay for our lovelessness. He showed us what true love is.
His love touched the dumb, the deaf, the diseased, and the disabled.
His love warned, wept, and washed dirty feet.
His love willingly took him to Jerusalem and terrible suffering.
His love carried a cross – and died upon it!
His love welcomed each of us into God’s family, forgiving our sin in the water of baptism. Because of Jesus you are perfect saints in the eyes of God. Eternal life is yours in Christ. Forgiveness of sins is yours. The perfect love of God is yours.
We don’t love in order to get to heaven; we love because heaven is already ours in Christ.
We don’t love in order to win God’s favour; we love because we already have God’s favour in Christ.
We don’t love so that God will love us; we love because God has loved us in Christ with the greatest love we will ever know, the crucified love of Jesus.
In ‘Fiddler on the roof’, there is a confusion between faith and tradition in Tevye’s thinking when he says that without tradition our life would be as shaky as a fiddler trying to play on the roof!”
Maybe we would be more inclined to say, “Without the love of Christ controlling us, our life would be as shaky as… as … as a fiddler on the roof!”