Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

This weekend we hear from Matthew one of the most well known passages from his Gospel.  This is understandable; the simplicity of its message is appealing, the seeming lightheartedness of its message compelling.  Love God.  Love others.  Easy, right?

Why, then, is it paired this weekend with the passages from Exodus and Thessalonians?  They are not lighthearted, nor are they simple.  It is because, despite its apparent straightforwardness, the words of Matthew are meant to challenge us.

Jesus doesn’t tell the questioning scholar to “love God a lot”.  He says that the greatest and first commandment is to love God with everything he has, everything he is.  That is no small task.  What Jesus is teaching is radical.  It’s difficult.  Especially today.  Especially when the world around us thinks so very differently than Jesus.

It’s a simple message.  Simple is not the same as easy.  How many of us have chosen to go to a sporting event on a Sunday morning rather than come to church and show God our love?  How many t-shirts do we proudly wear with favorite teams, charities, TV shows, and personal accomplishments?  On the other hand, how many do we wear that acclaim our love for the God who has given us our very lives?  I counted my own; I have 13 of the former and only 3 of the latter.

Jesus’ words become even more challenging when seen through the lens of the reading from Exodus.  Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.  Jesus doesn’t teach these two commandments separately.  It’s not a casual connection.  Loving God with everything we have is what drives the love of neighbor.  For us this means that when we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, we can’t not love our neighbor.  All of our neighbors.  Exodus speaks specifically about “aliens”; immigrants of the time, the poor, the outcast.  So, then, the next question has to be, “who is neighbor”?

If we are actively loving God with all of who we are and have to give, then neighbor is defined in the context of God, rather than politics.  Catholic teaching, and Christian love for that matter, isn’t bound by the political boundaries of countries.  It recognizes no division between “us” and “them”.  I won’t go into the politics of immigration law in America here but I would challenge each of us to consider our own beliefs in light of today’s readings.  Let us educate ourselves about what God and Church have to teach us about this subject rather than TV commercials and blogs.

Where else in our lives will this passage challenge us?  It should play a part in every choice we make, however small or large.  Jesus is commanding us to apply this test to every part of our lives.  Was our coffee this morning the fruit of exploitation?  Does our rhetoric about the Ebola crisis reflect care and compassion or fear and segregation?  When we encounter those whose families look different from our own do we truly see them as neighbor?  Do we judge their food choices when they pay with food stamps?  Do we dismiss their value to society based on their tattoos, body piercings, or their clothing?  Do we believe them less deserving of our compassion because they aren’t native English speakers, or because they have a different name for God?  Even the best of us are influenced by the secularism of the world we live in.  It doesn’t make us bad people, or even bad Christians.  It does mean we have to pay closer attention to our interactions with others.  It calls us to harder work in the Lord’s name.   Jesus doesn’t say, “Love your neighbor, if she deserves it or he has earned it”.  I, for one, am very grateful he didn’t.  If God only loved those who deserve God, none of us would be included.  So who are we, in the light of God’s own example, to set conditions on our love?

I challenge us, all of us, to ask three very simple questions of ourselves.   “Am I thinking this, saying this, or doing this out of love for God?”  “Is what I am about to think, or say, or do an expression of God’s love for me?” “ If I think, or say, or do this am I a faithful imitator of the Lord?”  If the answer is no to any of these, then I believe we fall short of Jesus’ answer to the questioning scholar.  We stop shy of this greatest and first commandment and the next.  Let’s all try just a little harder, and with more honesty, to love God with everything we are, everything we have, and to love our neighbors- all of our neighbors- without exception.

This weekend we welcome our new pastor, Fr. Steven.  I don’t doubt that this community, which welcomed me so well when I first came, will welcome him with the love of Christ poured out.  Thank you for the prayers, patience, and commitment you have shown to this community.   The love of God has shone brightly at St. Peter’s throughout the last several months, and surely will continue in this next chapter of our parish history.  May God bless you.

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