The Practical Nature of Love

(Matthew 22:34-46)

The capacity for humans to get it wrong is breathtaking. And not just wrong, but stunningly, calamitously, 180-degrees-polar-opposite-wrong.

How else do we explain people’s love for the St. Louis Cardinals? Or Justin Bieber? Or mullets?

People are good at convincing themselves they have a handle on the right answer, when oftentimes, the right answer is miles away, having a Coke and a sandwich, and watching the ballgame on somebody else’s TV.

Here are some of the things I’ve gotten wrong in my life:

People are really good at thinking they know more than they actually do—while failing to realize it.

In the mid 1990s David Dunning and Justin Kruger, two social psychologists from Cornell, posited what has come to be known as, “the Dunning-Kruger effect.” The Dunning-Kruger effect, in its simplest terms, says that the poorest performers are the least aware of their own incompetence.

In other words, people don’t know what they don’t know—while fooling themselves that they do know it.

David Dunning started to think about this whole incompetence/ignorance gap when he read an article in the “Offbeat News Stories” of the 1996 World Almanac.

It seems there was an especially inept bank robber, who robbed two Pittsburgh area banks. At 5’6", 270 pounds, McArthur Wheeler, cut a fairly distinctive figure. Complicating his problems, Mr. Wheeler failed to mask himself as he robbed the two banks at gunpoint.

After his arrest, when shown the security footage of him staring directly into the camera with a gun in his hand, an incredulous Mr. Wheeler famously said, “But I wore the juice!”

It seems that Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that lemon juice, which we all know can be used as invisible ink, acts as a masking agent on everything. He did an experiment with a Polaroid camera, which, for some reason, didn’t capture an image of his face—thus affirming for McArthur Wheeler the invisible rendering properties of lemon juice.

Dunning and Kruger argued in their paper, “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.  Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the erroneous impression they are doing just fine.”

I can think of some politicians who are perfect candidates for this diagnosis. But alas, I digress.

I would like to suggest that, given the fairly shallow view of society, many folks in our culture unwittingly illustrate the Dunning-Kruger effect, walking around unaware with that same knowledge deficit when it comes to love.

Most people think they know what love is, right? They’ve celebrated Valentines Day. They’ve read Hallmark cards. They’ve been to enough romantic comedies to know what love is.

Pretty simple, really. Love is an emotion, apparently one you can second. It’s something you feel very deeply and strongly in your heart. You’ll know it when you feel it. It’s experienced as an ache, a longing, a warm glow on an autumn evening.

Love sneaks up on you, when you’re least expecting it. The average human being is defenseless against the strength of its insistent pull. You know what I’m talking about, right?

Is that what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel this morning? When he answers the Pharisees’ question about the greatest commandment, is this what Jesus is after?

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And then, “You shall love your neighbor as your self.”

Is that just another way of saying, “You shall harbor in your heart strong feelings of affection and approval for God and for your fellow human beings?”

Is Jesus saying, “You should feel really strongly, make sure you have the right emotion?”

No?

Why not?

Because you can’t tell someone to have an emotion. Can you? “You can’t love him!”

“Don’t be scared. There’s nothing to be scared of.”

“You have no reason to be upset. You’re not a poopy-head, are you? Ok, well, if you’re not, then why do you care what she says?”

Ok, well if it’s not all that romantic, emotional stuff, maybe Jesus is thinking of something else. Maybe he means that we should tolerate each other. You know, live and let live. You stay out of my affairs, and I’ll stay out of yours. If it feels good, do it. A kind of sweeping sentimentality that assures us everything will be all right, if we can just manage to keep our nose out of other people’s business. The caricature of the hippy, not wanting to make waves, just interested in letting everyone do their own thing—whatever that may be.

I’ve been accused of this, of allowing my “followers” to get “comfortable by allowing them to be at ease with their sins.”

When some folks hear you and I say that we need to love everybody, that “all means all,” what they hear is “permissiveness.” “That’s not real love,” they say. “That’s just refusing to get involved, refusing to call out sin.”

Maybe there are people who mean “overly free and easy” when they say “love,” but I don’t know any folks like that. Do you? Maybe what we mean by love is more complex than that kind of casual dismissiveness of beliefs suggests?

It’s not that easy, is it? I mean, figuring out what Jesus is after in this verse. Oh, I know it sounds simple enough, but that’s only because most people think they already know what love is. Love God. Love your neighbor. It sounds like kindergarten level stuff, doesn’t it?

Come on, Jesus. Give us something a bit more challenging. But maybe folks aren’t nearly as savvy as they think they are about just what constitutes love, and what constitutes its many counterfeits. There are a sufficient number of “McArthur Wheelers of Love” to cause concern. And the folks who know the least about it, as Dunning and Kruger point out, are often the most unaware of their incompetence.

If this is the greatest commandment (and its trusty sidekick), we should take great care to attend to what Jesus means when he says “love.”

So, what does the kind of love Jesus is talking about look like? How should we go about defining it?

I think there are a few interlocking principles that might shed some light.

First of all, love—while it may manifest as an emotion—is above all a commitment, a choice, a decision to act. Love, as Jesus conceives it, is more difficult than just managing to feel appropriately. To love as Jesus envisions means that we often must act lovingly—even when our emotions aren’t really in it. To wait to act until we feel loving is to miss the point entirely.

If we were to wait until we could muster up the appropriate feelings before acting, shockingly little would get done.

Second, if love is an action verb and not verb of being, that means that we will sometimes find ourselves doing things that look like the opposite of the kind of “hippy love” about which we are often accused. Sometimes love demands that we not keep quiet to preserve the peace. If something seems to undermine the prospects for our neighbors to live under the protection of God’s peace and justice, the loving thing to do is to speak the truth about it.

If you’re dealing with an addict, what’s the most loving thing you can do? Keep quiet, turn a blind eye, determine not to make waves?

No, in that situation the most loving thing you can say to someone is “No. I love you too much to contribute to an environment that perpetuates the pain and despair. I care too much to keep silent.”

That’s precisely the kind of love Jesus administers in the next chapter. He calls his questioners out, referring to them as “blind guides” and “fools” and “hypocrites.”

Why?

Because he’s tired of being hounded by them? Because he’s ticked that he can’t do anything without being chased down by one of these knuckleheads? Because after two chapters of arguing, of playing theological cat and mouse he can’t muster up anything other than petulance?

No. He says these things not because he doesn’t love them, but precisely because that’s what love looks like sometimes when it bumps up against the systems of power that will not be moved otherwise. Remember, these are the religious leaders Jesus has just accused of failing to act lovingly in the temple toward the blind and the lame—the people who, above all else, should have had access to God’s love in the temple, but who were prevented from it in an unloving act of callousness by the very leaders whose job it was to ensure that access to God’s love.

Love, as counter-intuitive as it might sound to those who think it means never being contrary, walks hand in hand with truth, refusing to be silent when the truth is imperiled. Sometimes love looks angry—because true love envisions the world as God intended it, and refuses to accept less.

Let me see if I can put some flesh on the bones.

Andrew Prior recalls a story, which is retold by the Biblical Scholar, Amy Jill Levine. Just how concrete love must be is seen in …  a classic story told by Rebbe Moshe Leib of Sassov (1745–1807). As the account goes, the rebbe had announced to his disciples, “I have learned how we must truly love our neighbor from a conversation between two villagers which I overheard”:

The first said: “Tell me, friend Ivan, do you love me?” 
The second: “I love you deeply.” 
The first: “Do you know, my friend, what gives me pain?” 
The second: “How can I, pray, know what gives you pain?” 
The first: “If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say that you truly love me?”

“Understand, then, my sons,” continued the rebbe, “to love, truly to love, means to know what brings pain to your comrade.” (Quoted by Amy Jill Levine pp. 116)

The practical nature of love, as Jesus conceives it in this passage, is the thing that holds all the rest of it together. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” In other words, none of the other commandments make any sense if love fails to provide a vision of what God intends for the world.

None of the rest of it matters if we stand idly by while white supremacists march, spreading their message of hatred and fear; or if we watch silently as a ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy seeking treatment gets stalked by immigration authorities; or if upon hearing all the #MeToo stories of women being sexually harassed and assaulted we don’t reflect on our own complicity and seek to change the culture that for too long has passively looked the other way.

True love is a commitment to act—even (perhaps especially) when it costs us dearly.

So, while we can afford to be wrong and not know it . . . about dragonflies and Justin Bieber, we can’t afford to get love wrong.

According to Jesus, the practical nature of love is the one thing we have to get right. Everything hangs on it—not just the law and the prophets, but the world of peace and justice that God envisions for all those whom God loves.

—Amen.

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