Matthew 22:34-36 The Rev. Helen Havlik 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time October 6, 2019
We might not be able to recite the Ten Commandments from memory, but we probably know what Jesus said were the greatest commandments: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Love God, love neighbor. Which is easy to remember—but what does that look like? And especially what does it mean to love our neighbor, our actual neighbor? That’s the premise of a recently released book, Loving My Actual Neighbor by Alexandra Kuykendall, where she describes the ways in which our love for the real people around us can be nurtured and then lived. This fall we’re focusing on the practices she recommends that can help us as we try to love our neighbors.
Turning to our gospel reading this morning, it helps to remember that just before he’s arrested Jesus had some run-ins with the religious authorities. Members of the various power groups—Herodians, Sadducees, Pharisees—asked questions designed to trap him into saying something they could use against him. Even so, Jesus continues to teach in the Temple and keeps the kingdom of God in front of his audience. I’m reading from Matthew 22, beginning with vs. 34. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Jerusalem. Up till this point, his ministry had been focused in and around Galilee. His reputation has grown along with the crowds who come to hear him and everything appears to be going well. But one day Jesus tells his disciples he’s heading south to Jerusalem. We know this story, so we know from then on he’s focused on completing what God has asked him to do. So Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem and he’s teaching about God’s kingdom when a lawyer—meaning someone who studies and interprets Jewish religious law—stands up to question him. This is the third time that day he’s been challenged by people who want to trap him but this one’s easy peasy: love God, love neighbor. End of story. In Luke’s more familiar version, the lawyer has a follow up question: so which neighbor is that? Apparently, like many of us, he wants to complicate what’s perfectly clear and simple. Maybe loving other people doesn’t actually mean “all” other people? Maybe neighbor means just people on my street? Or right next door to me?
The lawyer gets a bad rap for asking, but it’s actually a good question. Some of us—me, too—have learned to think of our neighbors in the abstract. It’s the people we see on tv suffering halfway around the world. Or in some far away big city or someone we’ll never meet who we hear is having trouble. We sympathize for a moment, say a prayer—but is that what Jesus is talking about when he asks us to love our neighbors as ourselves? Alexandra Kuykendall wonders about that as she remembers a woman who lived across the street from her with whom she never got past “hi,” mostly because this literal neighbor was a different race, much younger, and played loud, irritating music. Then one day, after an apparent family crisis led to some police activity, the woman was gone. Kuykendall says, “It bothered me that I couldn’t even pray for her by name. I recognized an opportunity lost.” (Loving My Actual Neighbor, p. 13). We know what we’re supposed to do and yet when I’m honest with myself I know I can’t do it—I can’t love people in this way. Or can I?
We Christians handle this failure to do what we know is right in several ways. Some of us resolve to do better and we do for awhile, but then we drop it and we’re back to knowing the “right” answer and coming up short. Or we resolve to do better and become perfectionists—nothing is ever good enough and we end up always feeling bad about ourselves, ashamed of our inability to do what we think is right. Or we give up and wallow in feeling bad or just decide it doesn’t matter what we do anyway—so we don’t even try. Some of us go into denial and projection—surely we love our neighbors at least most of the time—it’s those other people who don’t! So we use them as scapegoats for our failure. And never let the truth sink in. Too often the result is hopelessness, though it may look like anger and bitterness.
The prominent religious groups in Jesus’ day hear this commandment, know they can’t live up to it and handle it in the ways I’ve described. Some of the so-called outcasts Jesus hangs out with give up even trying to do what’s right. The Pharisees go the second way—judging and scapegoating others while being unable to see their own sin. Jump ahead a couple thousand years, and we, too, may find ourselves in a similar situation. What do we do when we know this commandment, know the right answer, and yet we can’t live up to it? What then? Maybe we need to back up a minute and ask what God is asking of us—what is God’s intention in giving us this commandment? What does it mean for us to hear and follow?
When Jesus tells us to love your neighbor, it’s not about just being nice and it’s not about being good. It’s about giving and receiving mercy, even when it means sacrificing our privilege and entitlement and convenience—or our egos or sense of security. Because all of us have received mercy—as independent and self-sufficient as we like to believe we are, you and I are vulnerable like everyone else. None of us lives this life without help. Sometimes help from people we don’t know and don’t even trust. Which neighbor again? The one right next door—or across the street—or in Meijer—or next to us in traffic on 131—or sitting at the desk beside us. Jesus says our neighbor is the other person actually here, right now—especially anyone who needs us. And surprise! Our neighbor is the other person here, right now, who may be more than willing to help us when we ourselves are in need.
Jesus hasn’t taken the easy road to Jerusalem and he doesn’t let us think we’re on an easy road either. As much as I’d like to think otherwise, Jesus doesn’t let me off the hook. Reading Kuykendall’s book, I have to confess I only know a few of my neighbors’ names. And I have to own the times I’ve walked by when someone needed me to be a neighbor. How many times I’ve grudgingly given a little when the situation called for a lot. How many times I’ve patted myself on the back and thought I’d met my quota for the week or the month or the year and could skip the next person. Or thought that only people who are nice or who agree with me are the ones I get to call neighbor. Jesus holds up the mirror to the lawyer and the others and more often than I should be, I’m standing right there next to them, hoping Jesus doesn’t literally mean what he’s saying.
Hope for all of us comes in the form of “practices” that can lead us in the right direction. We live in polarized times when too often we feel isolated from the people who are right next to us. So for the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at how we can learn to love the people around us in meaningful ways, because loving God and loving our neighbors are two sides of the same coin: I John 4:20 puts it this way, “those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” So I’m thinking anything I can do to love my neighbor more is a good thing, right?