Proper training about what it means to be an adult in America includes learning about love.
As a kid I remember watching “Love American Style” and “The Love Boat.” I listened to music extolling love’s virtues: Everybody from Barry Manilow to Bob Dylan weighed in on the subject. Heck, they even devoted a whole summer to it in 1967—a whole season to champion the merits of “free” love.
I remember wanting to be in love. I’d heard so much about it. It seemed to occupy a great deal of the popular consciousness. Erich Segal wrote a novel, and titled it—modestly enough—Love Story. We even had Leo Buscaglia—”Dr. Love.” Remember him?
Love, we were told, meant “never having to say you’re sorry.”
Then we were told that, in reality, love meant ”always having to say you’re sorry.”
Love always wins. Love never fails. “If you love something, set it free; if it comes back to you it’s yours; and if it doesn’t, it never was”—or if you got the other t-shirt—“set it free; if it comes back to you, it’s yours; and if it doesn’t, hunt it down and kill it.”
I don’t suppose it’s changed much since then. We still love “love.” In fact, we’re not above viewing love as a trans-species phenomenon; vampires and werewolves are apparently acceptable outlets for our fixations.
People get tattoos to tell the world how good love is. Then they get tattoos to tell the world how love has broken their hearts and sucked their souls.
You can give love. You can spurn love. You can embrace love or walk away from it. You can feel love. You can withhold love. You can cry or kill for love—or the lack of it. You can wonder “what’s love got to do with it?” You can even shake your fist and scream to the world that “Love stinks!”
But love will find a way. It is, after all, a many splendored thing.
And…in the end…you know…the love you take is equal to the love you make. Why? Because the greatest love of all is easy to achieve…since, according to Whitney Houston, the greatest love is the one inside of me.
All of which suggests, I think, that love is something we possess. It’s something we look for, and if we’re lucky enough, we’ll find—whether in the face of another or in our own heart.
Love is an emotion, a feeling. In fact, according to the Supergroup Boston, it’s “more than a feeling.” Love is, after all, all you need. So, when Jesus says love the Lord your God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself, it feels like he’s talking about something we already have know.
Love. Oh yeah, I know what that is.
Love. I’m all over that.
But before we get too far into any self-congratulations, let’s take just a moment to see how we got to the point.
We’re in the last couple of days of Jesus’ life. He’s already entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, being welcomed with adoring cheers by those who think he’s about to start an armed insurrection against the Roman occupiers. He is, the crowd believes, on the verge of doing some Incredible Hulk-style smashing and breaking. Then, almost as if he’s ready to confirm their hopes for bloodlust against authority, Jesus goes to the temple and starts kicking up dust by calling out the religious authorities, and unceremoniously tossing them out on their ears.
This foray into temple politics has stirred the hornets nest, however. As Mark tells us, “And when the chief priest and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).
This fear of Jesus by the religious muckity-mucks manifests in their trying to catch him out. The religious establishment all start trying to lay traps for him. First, Pharisees and Herodians question Jesus about paying taxes—should good Jews pay taxes to that weasel, Caesar?
“Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, and to God the things that are God’s.” Next up are the Sadducees. They ask a question about marriage after the resurrection, which is obviously a ploy, since Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection.
And Jesus calls them on it. “God is the God of the living, and not of the dead.”
Then, a scribe sidles up to Jesus, and says, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Finally, what appears to be an honest question—not just one designed to make Jesus look bad.
The first commandment? Jesus goes back to two texts: first, our Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy, and then another important text from the Torah, found in the book of Leviticus.
Paraphrasing Deuteronomy, Jesus says, “Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
That’s a good one. Love God.
Next, Jesus moves to Leviticus nineteen, saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Another good one. Love your neighbor.
Love God. Love your neighbor. We probably ought to just say the benediction and go home.
What more is there to say?
Since we’ve been so thoroughly educated about what love means, we ought to be in pretty good shape, though, right?
If our culture has it anything like right, what Jesus is telling us to do is to find that warm feeling toward God and everybody else.
So, there you go. Here’s my homiletical advice: Go out there and feel the way you’re supposed to feel. Dial it up. Put on some top 40. Watch some romantic comedies—whatever you’ve go to do. Just make sure your emotional muscles are toned up, and you should be good to go.
Easy, right? And they pay me to do this stuff.
But there’s a problem, isn’t there? How do you command love, if love is just a feeling?
Can you feel on command?
“I can see why you might be sad. Your boyfriend just broke up with you. But you need to snap out of it, and quit feeling sorry for yourself.”
“I know you’re getting ready to graduate and move out into the cold cruel world. But anxiety isn’t helpful, so get over it.”
“Come on, keep your chin up. There’ll be other dream jobs.”
“So what if she teased you unmercifully all through your childhood? She’s getting married, and you’re going to the wedding … and you’re going to like it? Do you hear me?”
See what I mean?
If love is only an emotion, then Jesus can’t command it—any more than he could command hunger or thirst. Emotions happen as a reaction to stimuli.
So, obviously Jesus means something more than being favorably disposed toward another when he says that the greatest commandments include love of God and love of neighbor.
But what? If Jesus doesn’t mean what American pop culture means when it says love, then what does he mean?
Well, if you look to the Deuteronomy passage, you don’t get a great deal of help on the question of what love is—only that whatever it is, it ought to be directed toward God without reservation; and furthermore, it must be taught to our children.
If you go back to the passage in Leviticus 19, however—the “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” passage—you start to get a picture of what Jesus is talking about.
Prior to the admonition about neighbor-love, there are some verses that begin to put a little skin and bones on the command to love your neighbor as yourself.
Beginning in Leviticus 19:9, the author begins to flesh out the whole “love thing”:
>“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.”
A couple of verses later, Leviticus tells us:
>“You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD.”
How about this?
“You shall not render unjust judgment … You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.”
The author of Leviticus finally unveils the point of all these rules:
>“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
Did you see what Jesus did here by using Leviticus? He didn’t give us some airy commandment to feel kindly toward other people. He commanded us to do something.
Love, you see, requires activity. Love isn’t an abstraction; it’s a way of living with other people that takes their needs as seriously as we take our own.
The way we treat those who are hungry, the way we treat the laborer, the way we treat the disabled, the way we pursue justice—these all have to do with love.
What we care about and what we refuse to remain silent about, who we see and whose voice we hear, how we offer compassion and how we stand up for those who’ve been knocked down—those are all about love. Back bent, hands dirty, feet sore…love.
And the fact that Jesus links love for neighbor and love for God together suggests that the way we love God is through our love for our neighbors. Jesus doesn’t offer up some vague notion of love that centers first on our ability to muster up the correct emotional responses.
In fact, if we’re ever going to feel love, then, in all likelihood, we’re going to have to act lovingly first.
The secret of love that our culture seems not to know is that the feelings of love generally follow loving action; they don’t necessarily precede them. It is easier, as the saying goes, to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.
All of which is to say, if you wait until you feel love toward your neighbor, toward those whom society places at the bottom of the priority list, chances are you’ll never love your neighbor.
If you wait to do it till you feel like it, chances are it’ll never get done.
In other words, the love Jesus is talking about is more like a daily decision, a disposition to action, a habit you cultivate over time, than it is the kind of things you find on the inside of Valentine’s cards down at Walgreens.
I often marvel at my buddy, Bill. He’s a funeral director, and former coroner in southeastern Kentucky. He deals with all kinds of folks, from multimillionaires to fourth generation welfare families.
I can’t tell you how many people he’s helped, how many hands he’s held—off the clock—how many children from poor families he’s buried for free—just because the family couldn’t afford it.
I can’t tell you the number of funerals he’s helped pay for out of his own pocket. I can’t tell you number of times and countless ways he’s gone out of his way to make people’s lives a little more bearable during those times when their worst nightmares come true.
I said to him one time, “You must really like these people—all the stuff you do for them.”
He said, “Some of them. Sure. A lot of them I don’t much care for at all. I’ve been taken advantage of in so many creative ways, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“Why do you keep doing it?”
“Well, there are plenty of people more religious than me. But I do know one thing: When Jesus said to love people, he didn’t ever say, ‘Except for the folks you don’t like.’ The way I learned it, when Jesus said, ‘Love everybody,’ he meant everybody, even those people you don’t much care for. You see, most of these people have had hard lives. But they’re human beings. I reckon they deserve a little dignity and compassion…just like I’d give my own family.”
You want to know what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” that’s a pretty good place to start.