An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Love, love and love

A sermon on Matthew 22:34-46 by Nathan Nettleton
There is something strange about the concept of issuing a command to love. Even when we get past thinking of love as just a warm gooey attraction to another person and think about it more as an act of the will, a commitment that is not dependent on how we feel, there is still something that is hard to reconcile about it. There is something almost self-contradictory about a command to love, because if you’re doing something for someone primarily because you’ve been commanded to do so, can you also claim that it is essentially an act of love?

It is a bit like a parent telling a child to say thank you. You can tell a child to say thank you and if things are going well they’ll say it. But there’s not much point in telling a small child to be grateful. A genuine spirit of gratitude will be born in the child at some later developmental stage. At this stage all you can hope for is to train the child in the manners that are associated with gratitude. And you do that partly as a way of laying the foundation for the child to discover and grow into real gratitude. Once real gratitude has been born you don’t have to tell them to say thank you. To people who experience real gratitude, the expression of it comes naturally.

Surely love is like that too. And if it is, what’s the point of Jesus telling us to love – to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves?

Well, before addressing the guts of my question I’d better at least be true to the context in which we heard Jesus say these things. In fact, he wasn’t giving it as a command here. He was reciting a command from the law of Israel as an answer to a question. And that context is very instructive as we address our question. The question Jesus faced was “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The first thing worth noting is that Jesus gave an answer at all, because some people would have wanted him to say the commandments are all equally important. But he doesn’t. He says that all the rest of the commandments, and the rabbis had counted 613 of them, are to be understood as applications of the law of love. If you love God, and you love others as yourself, then all the others will be clear to you and you won’t have to even think too much about whether you are obeying them because you will be. So in fairness to Jesus we must note that he is not emphasising the idea of love as a commandment, he is emphasising the nature of commandments as being simply a way of documenting the implications of love.

The next thing to see that may help us address our question is a bit more complicated and requires a bit of a grammar lesson, and as you can probably tell from the way I write, grammar is not my area of expertise. Ancient Greek grammar, even less so.

There is something unusual about the form of the verb “love” here and it may be important. It is not the usual imperative form. Let me explain. We can use the same verb in different ways, and while in English they don’t always change their spelling for the different ways, in New Testament Greek they usually do. If I say, “John will go to the shop,” the word “go” is in the future form. But if I say “John, go to the shop now!” the word “go” is in the imperative form which means that instead of describing what is going to happen,I am giving John an order. In Greek it would be the ending of the word instead of the order of the words that made the distinction clear.

Now in our reading, the word “love” is actually in the future form, not the imperative form. It reads more like a prediction that we will love than a command that we must love. Now the Ancient Greek experts say that it is a future form with an implied imperative, but the fact remains that it is not the normal imperative and the command nature of the statement is muted by something that has at least a hint of a promise to it. And in fact if we go and look at what Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, you’ll find that the whole command reads: “Hear O Israel – the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The emphasis of command is actually on the “Hear O Israel.” The “You will love the Lord your God…” is what we are commanded to hear, and it has that slightly ambiguous blend of promise and implied command. So the meaning is sort of half way in between “You folks are commanded to love,” and “Listen up folks. There’s good news. The day is coming when we will all love God and we will all love one another.” Perhaps I’m wrong in saying that its half way in between. It’s more both held together in a kind of creative tension.

Here ends the grammar lesson. But what are we to make of what came out of it? Does it make any difference to our question about whether it makes sense to give a command to love? I think the answer is Yes. Let me explain.

It seems to me that this combined promise/command recognises that love is not a black or white, “you’re either doing it or you’re not” kind of thing. Love is something where there is always room for improvement, but its also something where you know it’s going to take a new heaven and a new earth before we experience the fullness of love that deep inside we’re really hungering for. I don’t think there is a person on the planet who doesn’t have even a shred of love within them, but I know there is not a person on the planet who up comes even close to the full measure of love we’ve seen once – in Jesus Christ. And because all of us have at least some measure of love in us, and because all of us aspire to grow in love, then we can respond to a command to love because our actions will not be motivated solely by the command. The command might be the prompt we needed to go an extra step or two, but the desire to love and to be ever more loving is already a part of us. The command, at best, will be one of the things that helps keep us pushing on towards the goal.

And that’s where the promise comes in – the promise that changes the whole feel of the command. The promise tells us that the striving is not in vain. The promise tells us that every little step forward that we make in learning to love God and love one another now is worthwhile because it is preparing us for a promised future where love will come to fruition. The promise tells us that every time we push ourselves a little further down the path of love we are putting one more nail in the coffin of the callous indifference and hard-hearted greed that have reigned destructively over our world for far too long. Every move of love forces open the gate a little wider for the full reign of love to come marching in and gather up all things into the glorious communion of love that is the heart of God.

Sure, sometimes our efforts at being loving will not be much more sophisticated than a small child saying thank you because he’s told to. And at times the way of love will be regarded by everyone around us as the way of losers – so much so that we’ll want to forget it and succumb to the greed and cultured indifference of the “winners”. And if love was only a command then perhaps we might as well.

But love is also a promise. It is a promise that undergirds every step of love we take. It provides the strength for love and it provides the meaning for love. When we stand on tip toes and peer over the horizon of the future and we catch sight of the all-embracing reign of love coming dancing towards us, then love makes sense. Then even our most faltering efforts at love have a context that fills them with hope because every act of love becomes a prophetic protest against cynicism and despair and a courageous proclamation of the good news of the dawning reign of love. No wonder Jesus said love was the greatest commandment of them all.

So hear this, people of God. You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And you will love your neighbour as yourself. You will. You really will! Thanks be to God.


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