2021 Trinity XVIII – Love is the Law

Trinity XVIII – 2021 October 4

Ken Kubo, Candidate and Seminarian

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.”

St. Matthew 22:37

I am particularly happy to be preaching on this portion of the Good News on a first Sunday – not because it’s a Low Mass so I can spend more time preaching, but because we traditionally recite the Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – at the beginning of the service. On most Sundays, we hear the Summary of the Law, and in today’s reading, you hear Our Lord first summarize it this way. This portion of St. Matthew’s Gospel relates a series of tests presented to Our Lord by the Pharisees and Sadducees – the Establishment of First Century Judaea. They question not to seek Jesus’ wisdom, but in hopes of finding clear heresy in his responses so that they can denounce Him. It is a Pharisee lawyer who asks Him which is the great commandment in the law. While the entirety of Jewish law contains some 613 mitzvot or commandments in the Torah, the Law of Moses, Our Lord responds by addressing the soul of Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments. Obviously, the lawyer is seeking to have Him pick one of the 10 (or 613) and thus be able to turn around and criticize Him for disrespecting the others. Instead, He responds with a summary which is clear, concise, and – irritatingly for the Pharisees – unarguable.

Some of you may remember the character of Fr. Guido Sarducci, a comedic figure played by Don Novello and a favorite recurring guest on Saturday Night Live. In one of his routines, Fr. Sarducci related that originally, there were more than 10 commandments. Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets and found the Israelites worshipping “a big golden cow.” Understandably, he was upset. He smashed the tablets. When he recreated them, so the routine relates, he was upset, and so the commandments that came to mind were all the negative ones – “thou shalt not.” Especially that “gaven idol” one. Think back to the Decalogue; remember how many of them start with that phrase. While Fr. Sarducci was not overly troubled by doctrinal orthodoxy, he made a valid point that the Commandments enabled a faith based on not doing things, while leaving a lot of potential human mischief in the details. This is exactly what Our Lord challenged the Pharisees with repeatedly – priding themselves on following the commandments and yet somehow missing the mark – the full letter of the law and none of the spirit. This is why the Summary of the Law is so powerful – and why the Pharisees were forced again to back down. Our Lord flipped the definition of the Law to contain what we should do, not just a litany of things we shouldn’t. In doing so, He captured the underlying motivation beneath the Commandments – the “why” for adhering to them – and made clear that the entirety of the Law can be understood through love. Popular media tells us that “love is the answer” (Rundgren), “love is all you need” (Lennon/McCartney), and that “love is an open door” (Lopez/Lopez). In the Greek, the single word “agapeeseis” (?????????) can be translated as the imperative “thou shalt love.” Remembering that the Greeks were very precise with differing shades of meaning for love, the use of “agape” here captures that the love we are commanded to actively employ is selfless, charitable, dutiful. Remember the extended definition given to us in St. Paul’s Former Epistle to the Corinthians (“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy…it is not self seeking…” I Corinthians 13:4-7).  In particular, this contrasted with the self-serving behaviors of the Pharisees and Sadducees Our Lord was facing in these tests.

As an aside, my favorite mitzvah is found in Leviticus 11:29 – not to eat of the flesh of “the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise.” To my knowledge, I have never transgressed against that, although that may be due to the fact that I’ve never seen any of those on sale at our local grocery store. Unlike the Pharisees of the time, though, I do not believe that just avoiding a nice weasel casserole raises my standing in the eyes of the Divine. We are called first and foremost to love God – agapeeseis – truly, completely, dutifully, and unconditionally. We are not bargaining with our affections in a supernal quid pro quo. Frankly, we should feel blessed that our faith teaches us that God loves us unconditionally as well!

Speak to my inmost soul, and say, “I am thy love, thy God, thy all.”
To feel thy power, to hear thy voice, To taste thy love, be all my choice!

Gerhardt Tersteegen (18th century mystic, author, and hymnist)

Last week, Beth and I travelled to Las Vegas. A couple of my college friends were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary – their mutual choosing of each other – with a renewal of their vows. The pastor remarked on the amazing example they set, especially in these times when such fidelity is under siege if not out of fashion. In part, this is because the mores of our society can make it easy to let self-interest creep in and distract from the agape that should be at the forefront. Another friend of mine once quipped that we are told we have the right to pursue happiness, and so many pursue it…somewhere else. Some of you may remember the Schoolhouse Rock segment “Fireworks,” where the inalienable rights of the Declaration of Independence are called out and clearly interpret “the pursuit of happiness” that same way. But my friends did not make it through 30 years of marriage because they were happy (or pursuing such) – they were and are happy because they were willing to put in the effort to make those 30 years work. I know that many in this congregation understand this personally. The rings that they exchanged as a new couple picked up many a ding or scratch over those years, each little scar making them all the more precious because what those rings symbolized continued to endure. During the ceremony, they removed and once again placed those rings on each other’s hands. When she went to place the ring on his finger, she actually dropped the ring, and the pastor scrambled a bit to pick it up. Just another ding, and a wonderful demonstration that the ceremony did not have to go perfectly for it to be perfect. Later, at the reception, I discussed sermon notes with the pastor – he had to preach the next morning and hadn’t started his sermon yet and I, of course, was just starting on this one. It was, for example, interesting symbolism that when the ring dropped, it was a minister who retrieved it and gave it back to them – highlighting the role of faith and our church’s support in helping with all our relationships, especially the most important ones. The imperfections in the rings after 30 years were proof that their love was not just a poetic ideal but something that stood the test of time in the real world. The pastor noted that he had never had a ring drop before, although he once did have a bride’s veil catch fire because she held the Unity Candle a trifle too close. The Spirit has been known to descend like tongues of fire, but the symbolism was a bit much there (and yes, they were able to quickly remove the veil and douse it with no injury). For my friends, their wedding feast was the beginning of joy and trials, hard work and setbacks and victories. After 30 years, we celebrated a milestone, but not, after all, the journey’s end. They are still travelling on together, upheld in the hands of faith and supported by mutual “willing the good of the other.” Let us take heart from examples like these.

Our Lord reminds us that we are each in a relationship with God, called to love Him and to love our neighbor actively, consistently, and in the real world. Every Sunday is a bit of an anniversary. Nowhere is it promised that this love will be simple, easy, or without sacrifice. The prayers we use for birthdays and Baptism, Matrimony and Confirmation all include a plea for strength in adversity. Like wedding bands, we too will suffer the occasional dent and scratch, the occasional mishap of life. Once in a while, we may even find ourselves falling away from our community, our friends, even our faith. And in those times, perhaps brought low by misfortune, we depend on the promise of our Good Shepherd to swiftly scoop us up in His arms of boundless, selfless love. We are assured that He will always value us, even (and especially) when we don’t. Not one sparrow falls to the ground without His notice (St. Matthew 10:29). As Broadway reminds us, “When you’re broken on the ground, you will be found.” (Pasek/Paul) When we find ourselves walking in darkness, it is He who will be our great light to guide us to His ways (Isaiah 9:2). We will rise up again! For us, the wedding feast is the end of the journey, not the beginning – the marriage supper of the Lamb, the celebration of the salvation of all who are in Christ (Revelation 19:9). The way that leads from our Baptism (our joining into the body of the Church which is the Bride of Christ) to that blessed time – just as the road that leads from an earthly wedding – is paved, marked, and guard-railed by love. The great blessing of our faith is that Our Saviour took the entire traffic code and reduced it to this precious Summary. This should not inspire you to try to find loopholes in the Ten Commandments! We are bound to Our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier for the long haul, and we can glimpse imperfectly the glory to come. If we work on that relationship, focusing on putting God above the distractions of the world and the flesh and prioritizing the good of our neighbor, keeping the Ten should just be a symptom that you are trying out your heavenly feast runway fashion – and it is fitting increasingly well. But just to be on the safe side, you might continue to pass on the weasel.