Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Loving God with everything

“Behold a lawyer stood up to put Jesus to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read?" And he answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself." And Jesus said to him, "You have answered right; do this, and you will live."
Luke 10:25-28 (29-37)

The above is the introduction to the story of the Good Samaritan which Jesus tells in response to the question that follows the above, which is: "And who is my neighbour?"  Naturally many sermons focus on the famous story but I am intrigued by the first part.

The first thing that strikes us when we read this passage is that the lawyer has no name. Luke just says “a lawyer stood up”. There may be many reasons he is not named. Perhaps Luke just didn't know one from many or he wanted to make some point about the scale of opposition to Jesus with the lawyer being one of a number of new faces that started to spring up to test or attack Jesus? But there may be another reason. Perhaps this lawyer stands for “everyman” or “everyone”. Perhaps he is trying to say that this question is the question everybody asks at some time in their lives, albeit in  different way. “..what shall I do to inherit a life" i.e. the life continues on from this one and lasts for ever?”

At the moment Hayley - married to Roy Cropper - from Coronation Street has come out from her operation early to be told that her cancer is inoperable and she has less than a year to live. Although it didn't figure in the episode I watched,  in real life the whole question of "is this it?" or "is this the end?" would be asked in some way, shape or form following the doctor's devastating news. So it is everyone's question and the lawyer speaks for us even though his motive was less than honest.

Second, Jesus challenges the questioner to answer the question himself from the knowledge he has gained from reading the Old Testament scriptures. “What is written in the law? How do you read?”

I love the way Jesus teaches. He starts from where we are and so asks the question to find out exactly where that is. Where are we in our understanding? Where are those we speak to in theirs? Paul started with the current philosophy of the day on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31). What is the popular philosophy or knowledge base for today's society?

Also Jesus, in asking the question, acknowledges the importance of the Old Testament. It is sadly fashionable even in Churches nowadays to set the Old against the New Testament. People seem to somehow think that the New is better than the Old in the same way a new computer is more reliable than an older more obsolete one. They may even set the God of the Old Testament against the God of the New suggesting that he seems to have lightened up a bit somewhere between the writing of the two! But here Jesus underlines the value of the Old by acknowledging that it has something important to say about the big questions of life. “You want to know about eternal life and how to get it. What does the Old Testament Law say?” he asks.

And the lawyer knows the answer. I say 'knows' but as we read later his question "who is my neighbour?" actually demonstrates that that knowledge has more to do with memorization than actual understanding. In education reforms under the previous government they tried to get away from learning by heart because exams could be perceived to be more about remembering the answers than actually understanding them. It appears that this was what the lawyer has done. However the wording is correct:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself; and your neighbour as yourself.”

What he has in fact done is summed up the whole Law and reduced it down to two commands. And if you look at the Ten Commandments you will see that they can be divided into those two parts: duty to God and duty to neighbour. So Jesus’ response is “You have answered right; do this, and you will live.”

So here is the answer then. Love God with all you are and have and you will be able to inherit eternal life. Done and dusted. But wait a minute. What does that look like? What does loving God with everything look like? Does it mean I have to spend every waking second thinking about God? Does it mean praying hours on end or going to Church every day? Does it mean reading my Bible end to end or becoming super religious and super devout? Does it mean going hammer and tongs - or in some case hammer and tongues (sorry couldn't resist it) - at our unbelieving friends and relatives? That would have largely been how the Pharisees saw it and that is how many people who go to church see it today which is probably why most people don’t attempt it, or if they do they let others know about it as often as possible. Is that what Jesus meant?

The key to understanding the answer lies in the first part. “You shall love the Lord your God…”  Do we ‘love’ God? That is harder than you think.

My son Ben is 30 this month and there i,s as yet, no woman in sight. He needs a good woman to make his life complete and he has met a few over the years. There was one in particular whom we as parents liked. She understood him, was able to put up with him and she loved him. The trouble was he didn't love her. We did everything. Invited her round for tea, encouraged him to ring her or go for a drink together. We bragged her up. We did everything it was possible to do and if we had been Hindus we would have chosen her as his wife to be. But nothing could have made him love her. He just didn't and no amount of effort on his part - or ours - could change his mind.

The same applies to God. If loving him is the way to eternal life what happens if we don’t or can't love him? We could do all the other stuff no problem. But loving him when we don’t or can’t makes it difficult to say the least especially when we have eternal life hanging on it.

But it’s at that point that we must come to the realisation that we can't. That we need to ask God for help. Sadly we are in this common human mode of thinking that everything lies within our own powers or ability and in our pride we think we can do whatever we like or want. But there comes a time when we must realise that there are things we can’t do without God’s help. Which is why Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that it is the “poor in spirit” that will be blessed and enter the kingdom of God. Because the poor in spirit recognise that they don’t have the inner resources to love God. They need his help. And so they mourn and they become meek and they hunger and thirst. And as they do these things they cry out to God. "Help us. I don’t know how to love you".  They say, in effect: “I love, help my un-love” to parody the phrase.

There is a prayer I sometimes use in my own prayer times. It's from the Eastern Orthodox Church and it begins like this:

“O Lord, I know not what to ask of Thee. Thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love.”

“Thou lovest me more than I myself know how to love.” That is an acknowledgement that I really don’t know how to love God with all my being. So the prayer asks God to help by opening my eyes and my heart so that I can love him and enjoy the eternal life he longs to give me. The Apostle John realised this too, which is why he wrote: “We love, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) In other words John recognises that God is the source of all love and we can only love 'from out of the source'. Or to quote Psalm 36:9: "For you are the fountain of life and in your light we see light."

The collect for today in the Anglican calendar - and probably written by the Reformers - underlines this:
Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We need God to awaken love in us for him, and to see that love in Jesus.

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