Love is the subject of many, many songs. Sometimes a song is about lost love. Sometimes it is about new found love. Sometimes it long lasting love. Sometimes it is even about the lack of love. But many times the subject of love inspires some beautiful poetic lines.
The musician T. Bone Burnett, who incidentally grew up in the Episcopal Church, wrote one of my favorite verses about love in a song aptly titled “Poetry.” He sings:
I love you more than dreams, and poetry More than laughter more than tears, more than mystery I love you more than rhythm, more than song I love you more with every breath I draw
I think it is brilliant how Mr Burnett uses his devotion to such abstract things as dreams and mystery to express his love for another person. I think it is brilliant because love, itself, is abstract. It is exceedingly hard to define and even express. It is difficult to point to something and say, “Look, that is love.”
The word love is not lacking in our lives of faith. In fact, the word love occurs well over 800 times in the Bible, translated from 2 different Greek words and 7 different words in Hebrew! This morning we hear the word twice.
Jesus is quizzed on what is the most important commandment. The Torah is a collection of 613 commandments. It was common in rabbinical discussions to seek a terse and easily understood summary of these commandments as well as ways to rank their importance.
Some commandments were considered light commandments. For instance, there was a commandment that if you came across a bird’s nest with a mother tending her eggs or her young, you were allowed to take the eggs or the young but not the mother. This is, some rabbis taught, a light commandment, not as significant a commandment as “Thou shalt not murder.”
Today’s question posed to Jesus was not an uncommon one. The Talmud relates the story of a Gentile telling the famed rabbi Hillel that he would convert to Judaism if Hillel could teach him the entire Law while he stood on one foot. Hillel’s answer was, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!”
Jesus’ answer was different than Hillel’s and it has become seminal to our lives of faith. Jesus tells us to love God with our entire beings and to love our neighbor as we love ourself.
We have heard these words often. I am certain none of us are surprised or intrigued by hearing them this morning. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us have questions about these two commandments.
First, can you really command someone to love? Second, what does it mean to love God or to love our neighbor. By the way, I feel I should tell you I am not going to answer these questions while standing on one foot. I think we can answer the first one by answering the second one.
First, love in the Bible is not what we might hear in most love songs. In fact, one definition of love in the Bible reads, “the deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety.”
That is, perhaps, one of the least poetic things I have read.
But love in the Bible is not so much about affections but about choices. In our relationships with God and neighbor we do not fall in love we choose to love, we commit to love.
Our love of God and even our love of neighbor may include warm affection but that is not what we have been commanded to do.
Consider the words faith and faithfulness. Faith like love is an abstract noun. It is hard to describe and hard to identify. Faithfulness, though, is the action of living out our faith, our convictions, our vocations. That is very close to the biblical idea of love of God and of neighbor.
Jesus’ summary of the Law could well be understood as “Commit your entire being to God and show that commitment by seeking the welfare of your neighbor just as you seek your own.”
In the 1800s, the Roman Catholic saint, Fr Joseph Cafasso, lived in Italy. He was beloved and renowned as a sensitive and wise priest. Even the inmates in Turin’s prison were touched by his sanctity. A quote from him came to my mind this week:
We are born to love, we live to love, and we will die to love still more. We are born to be faithful and active in loving. We live to be faithful and active in loving. And we will die to be faithful and active in loving still more.
It may not be as poetic as Father Cafasso’s original quote but it is what love looks like when we speaking of loving our God and our neighbor. Affection alone doesn’t feed the hungry. Affection alone doesn’t heal our wounds and divisions Affection alone is not what led our Lord to live, die and rise again. It was his faithfulness, his commitment, his stalwart dedication to God’s mission that led him to lay down his life that we may rise again with him.
It is the same that he asks from us: Love the Lord your God with every bit of your being and love your neighbor exactly how you love yourself.