Jesus was asked what constituted the greatest commandment in the law. Bucking the modern idea that all of scripture is to be seen as equally revelatory and relevant, Jesus identified Deuteronomy 6:5 (“love the Lord your God”) and Leviticus 19:18 (“love your neighbor as yourself”) as the two most important, saying that “all the law and the prophets hang on these two” (Matthew 24:34-40).
The apostle Paul twice said in his letters that “love your neighbor as yourself sums up and fulfills the law (Romans 13:9, Galatians 6:4). He is also the author of the famous “love passage” where he calls love “the most excellent way” and says that it is “the greatest of these” (1 Corinthians 13). Likewise, James wrote, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right” (James 2:8). The first epistle of John even equates God and love, and says that “whoever does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).
So love is pretty important. It is apparently the main thing. It is communicated as both the basis for and the substance of the gospel. A Christian, above anything else, is to love.
But I have a problem. Besides being flawed like everyone else, and not always loving, I don’t know how to love in the way I’m supposedly supposed to, according to some.
I don’t know how to love my immigrant neighbor while being OK with my government ripping families apart, especially parents away from their children.
I don’t know how to love my black neighbors while refusing to believe them when they describe the scrutiny and discrimination they still face because of their color.
I don’t know how to love my female neighbors while blaming them for the harassment and predation they face, or while being silent as people who abuse them are given positions of power.
I don’t know how to love my Spanish- or Arabic-speaking neighbor while showing disdain and suspicion for their language, insisting that they learn mine without equal effort on my part.
I don’t know how to love my refugee neighbor while equating them with the terrorists from which they’re running, bearing false witness against a population that has not committed a single terror attack in the United States.
I don’t know how to love my LGBT neighbor while being silent in the face of the bullying and marginalization they face, or without wanting them to experience companionship and family.
I don’t know how to love my imprisoned neighbor while being supportive of practices like solitary confinement or the private prison industry whose profit interests demand more and more prisoners.
I don’t know how to love my enemies while supporting their torture and indefinite detainment. I don’t know how to believe in conquering evil with good while taking an eye for an eye.
I don’t know how to love my sick neighbor while shrugging my shoulders as Congress makes healthcare less affordable for them.
I don’t know how to love my working poor neighbor without wanting to see them earn a fair and living wage for the work they do, often at multiple jobs that keep them away from their family.
I don’t know how to love God while turning his earth over to the interests of corporations.
Perhaps you know a way to love people while saying that it’s only the church’s job to care for them while others work against their interests. Perhaps you know a way to love someone in the here and now while only caring about the afterlife. Perhaps you know how to believe in mercy not universally applied, or compassion that keeps its distance.
But I’m afraid I don’t. I don’t know how it is love if it’s followed by “get out,” “get up,” “shut up,” or “serves you right.”
I fear we’ve forgotten what love is — that selfless, sacrificial, justice-seeking, sell-all-you-have, hang-out-with-the-poor, visit-the-imprisoned, feet-washing, self-denying, stone-dropping, enemy-loving thing called agape love.
Jesus said that the world would know we are his disciples by our love (John 13:35). He was right. Not only that his disciples are defined by love, but that people will know who is who.
People know. People were helplessly attracted to Jesus; all, that is, except the self-assured religious elite. People know love when they see it and experience it. It draws people, heals people, and affirms their ultimate worth.
That’s what love is. That’s who God is. Let us choose this day whom we will serve.