Love of Neighbor and the Mystery of God With Us

 

Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost

Matthew 22:34-46

As someone tasked with weekly sermon preparation, I often find that the most helpful reflections are those that, rather than make a single, uniform point about the text, offer a few possible directions for exploration and uncovering.

As I read this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, there are a number of directions I think any homilist could go, and I hope that the following possibilities are helpful in either your preparation and writing, or in your prayerful reflection on the text as a spiritual discipline.

I need my neighbor to love my neighbor

The call to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” cannot be divorced from his second response, which is “like it”: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is, perhaps, an obvious observation, since this seems to be what Jesus is saying to this scholar of the Torah. But, I think it is important to reiterate the fact that love of God is not an abstract concept, disembodied or displaced from the material conditions of our actual neighbors and actual response to their well-being. There is no love of God that is not manifest in love of neighbor. But to love our neighbor is to be clear that what is best for our neighbor cannot be limited by our insulated concepts of their well-being. In other words, to love one’s neighbor means to desire and act toward his/her good, but it also means to allow our neighbor’s burdens and expressed need to shape our action toward their wholeness. I cannot know how to love my neighbor apart from my actual, real-life neighbor; I must know the particular burdens they carry to respond with the particular, concrete acts of love necessary to lighten the load. To love our neighbor is to follow Jesus’ lead when he asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?”[1]

That said, I wonder if love of our neighbors is also determined by the political realities outside our immediate control. I am convinced that the church must embody an alternative political reality to bear witness to the presence and preeminence of God’s Kingdom. Jesus’ interpretation of the Psalm in verses 41-45 of Matthews Gospel make clear that Jesus, the Messiah, will not be contained by any historical precedent set by a human Kingdom; he is the Lord of Lords.

But I am also convinced that, in order for the church to love its neighbors, she must recognize the material consequence of political realities in the lives of her neighbors. That is to say, if I am going to love my neighbor, I cannot ignore the fact that elected officials and their policies, the realities of the socio-political order of the nation and world and the adversarial social relations necessitated by a capitalist economy affect the lives of my neighbors and our ability to love one another well. Sharing my bread with my neighbor does little good if the State has bound her hands behind her back. Perhaps loving my neighbor means breaking the shackles so we can break that bread together.

Love of self is in the eye of the neighbor

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Perhaps we have considered the weight of the latter part of this commandment – that you must love yourself to rightly love your neighbor. Yet, if I am going to love myself, I am once again in need of my neighbor. Just as “we love because God first loved us,”[2] we cannot rightly love ourselves if we do not know ourselves to be loved. It is the love of our neighbors – their love for us expressed in various ways – whereby we know ourselves to be loveable and loved, both by our neighbors and by God. Rowan Williams says this brilliantly in his article “The Body’s Grace,” describing it as “the uncomfortable knowledge that I cannot make sense of myself without others, cannot speak until I’ve listened, cannot love myself without being the object of love or enjoy myself without being the cause of joy.”[3] My neighbor becomes the icon of my beloved-ness by revealing me to be a cause of their delight, desire, joy, and love. Through the gift of my neighbor, I know myself to be beloved, and therefore I can love myself.

The End of Questions

I don’t believe I have ever considered the significance of the placement of this text in the Gospel and the last verse of the chapter: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” The end of this chapter presses us into the woes against the scribes and Pharisees, a few apocalyptic parables, and the plot to arrest and kill Jesus. There is something to be said here about an end to a willingness to ask questions, to learn, to be challenged, and to sit with the uncertainty provided by the unique insight of another. If I am playing with the narrative provided by the Gospel, it is this unwillingness to ask questions in genuine humility that opens the final door toward the violence of the cross.

How often does an unwillingness to sit at the feet of our neighbors, our unwillingness to ask questions in genuine humility and desire to open ourselves to uncertainty, lead to our own acts of violence?

Conclusion

 If I were to tie these three otherwise separate reflections together, each speaks to our need for our neighbor. We must receive our neighbor as a gift, knowing that we cannot love God, our neighbor, or ourselves without the companionship and often challenging presence of our neighbor, drawing us further into the mystery of God-with-us.

[1] Mark 10:51

[2] 1 John 4:19

[3] Rowan Williams, “The Body’s Grace,” in Eugene F. Rogers, Theology and Sexuality : Classic and Contemporary Readings: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 316.

Image Credit: Christ and Pharisee by Ivan Filichev, 1993.

 

 

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