BIBLE READING: Matthew 22: 34-40
Do you get the feeling, sometimes, that if there is a third World War, it will not be over politics or over economics, but rather it will be over religion? The militant rise of fundamentalist Islam, the insane saga of Israel and Hamas, the enmity between Pakistan and India, and a host of lesser known tensions throughout the world, all conspire to cause us to wonder if the next confrontation will take us back to the Middle Ages when most of the killing and torture and hatred in this world was done in the name of religion. Every religion I know of sees itself as a beacon of light for the rest of the world. What a terrible shadow has been cast through the ages, however, by religious conflict and persecution.
If ever the world needed to hear the Gospel, it is now. A lawyer asked Jesus a question, to test him. "Master, which is the great commandment?" Jesus answered him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." Thus Jesus forever joined love for God and love for persons.
Let this one truth be clear. Tell it to ISIS and their massacre of Muslims Christians and Jews, tell the Israeli government and Hamas and tell it to every other misguided person on this earth:
Love of God and love for neighbour are oars of the same boat. Whenever you try to separate the two, you are usually ineffective, and sometimes downright dangerous. As the writer of First John puts it, "How can you say you love God whom you have not seen, if you cannot love your brother whom you have seen?" Love of God and love of neighbour.
Without love of God, love of neighbour is unlikely. Without God, why should I love my neighbour? Have you noticed that, as our culture has become more independent from God, we have drawn more and more into ourselves? Me, myself, and mine - those are the important words in many people's vocabulary today. And why not - if there is no God ? Why not look out for No. 1? That's what happens when faith disappears.
The most natural thing in the world is for us to love ourselves and those who are an extension of ourselves - our family, or clan or tribe - and to ignore or even despise the rest of the world. Among many tribal peoples, the word for human being is also the name of the tribe. Therefore, members of a different tribe are by definition not human beings. It is no coincidence that among many of the head-hunting tribes of the Amazon, killing a fellow tribesman is murder, whereas killing someone else is simply "hunting." That is the way tribal society thinks.
The first European settlers in Australia – had a fierce debate as to whether Aboriginal people were human and had a soul. After all they were "savages," according to this way of thinking - something less than human. Something that could be hunted and killed without guilt.
That is the natural way for human beings to behave. To love their own and to despise the foreigner, the stranger, the outsider. It is the natural way, but it is not the way of those who have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. God has reached down into our lives. He has loved us with an everlasting love - even though we are unworthy. And He has called us to share that love with others. And those "others" are not limited to our family, our community, our city, our nation or even our faith.
That's the Gospel in its totality. God loves us through Christ. We love God through our neighbour. To try it any other way does not work.
St. Augustine taught that even the person considered most evil is of immense value. That does not mean Augustine had a naïve view of “basic human goodness.” No, he was realistic about our sinfulness. Although we are marked by original and person sin, we do not lose the divine image – even if a person is full of sin, the imago Dei (image of God) remains. The image might be clouded over by sin, but it still exists inside every human being.
We are called to love each person, including those who are most hateful. That means recognizing their dignity, their great worth, their vocation to eternal life with God.
The Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote of a woman who is anxious about the existence of God and life after death. She approaches a priest with her anxieties. He explains to her the impossibility of proving – or disproving – that God exists and that our souls are immortal. Then he adds, “Strive to love your neighbour actively and tirelessly. In as far as you advance in love; you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.”
The woman, who is a young widow, tells the priest how she had dreamed about giving up her possessions and becoming a sister serving the poor. Yet she also worries what people would think of her. The priest then says these famous words, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”
When Jesus said we are to love our enemies – he was not talking in theory – he was not saying try to love your neighbours or your enemies. If you would follow Jesus you must first die to yourself, and live for him. This mean laying aside your spite and petty hates, letting go of your reasonable anger, turning your cheek to those how would attack you.
Jesus prayed that his church – his body would shine like a city on a hill. Shine with love and forgiveness. This is your challenge - your destiny, as a Christian, to show Christ's love to the world.
Acknowledgement: Philip Bloom