Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The costs of committment . . .

     I am often asked “How in the world could you all spend more than three years in a study of one book of the Bible?” The questions come from laity and clergy alike. Who has the patience for such tediousness? Why not pick a book with better stories? Why not go faster? When I am asked those questions, I invariable point to this passage (and a couple others like the temptation story) in Matthew, and a few others in Luke and Mark, as justification. To be sure, we did not start out with that kind of time commitment in mind. But we did take our Lord’s assertion seriously. As a group, we tackled the book with the premise that every single commandment in the torah flowed from one or the other of these Great Commandments: loving God or loving the neighbor. As a group, we struggled mightily trying to figure out how a particular instruction accomplished one of these two commandments. Given that there are some 613 instructions, we probably should have been pleasantly surprised that we finished it in just over three years. Over the course of the study, we discovered that there were 248 do’s and 365 don’t’s. That is a lot of instruction. Now, imagine yourself trying to figure out whether one of those was loving or not loving God or was loving or not loving neighbor. That’s what we faced.
     When considered as a sum of parts, the torah certainly seems expansive and even tedious; but when one remembers its purpose, it becomes a very challenging teaching. Why? Because the torah, as described by Christ, ultimately points to Him. Remember, as we just read a couple weeks ago, the torah was given by God to a redeemed people to teach them how to live in full communion with Him. The torah teaches us both the things (248 things specifically) which we should do to love God and to love our neighbor and things (365 things specifically) to avoid which cause us to act against God or against our neighbor. Admittedly, such detailed study is not for everyone—that’s why it was a voluntary Bible Study (by the way, the members of the class selected it, not me). I can even say with certainty that we did not agree upon which Great Commandment from which each instruction hung. I can also say that, although each member of that study is, for the most part, able to chew meat rather than needing to be fed gruel, all of us came away with a greater sense of how we had sinned against God and just how magnificent the grace was that He showed us. Better still, as we have continued through other books and through worship, each of us has noticed just how foundational Deuteronomy was to Jesus’ teachings. In many ways, these intrepid scholars have plumbed depths which they never before knew existed within Scripture.

     Those of us, of course, who are not yet able to sit down for such an extended period of time in quite as exhaustive a study, might wonder at Jesus words this week. I say that because all of our ability to begin to keep God’s instruction flows from the idea of love. It is precisely in these discussions of love that we forget the meaning of what Jesus was teaching. For us, today, love has become almost synonymous with passion and feeling, little more than gratification. I love ice cream. I am in love with my sweetheart. I love chocolate. I just love your shoes. For us in modern times, love has become a fleeting passion or “feel good.” Witness the number of Christian marriages which end in divorce. Think of the number of so-called Christian parents who walk away from their responsibilities to their children. Consider for just a moment, the loss of perseverance in many aspects of our life. What Jesus is talking about in these Great Commandments, however, was something far more permanent, something far more important than good feelings.

     Jesus was talking of a love which more closely resembles commitment than it does passion. The Greeks distinguished between three different types of love, and Matthew chose the selfless love of agape, which could barely be considered as possible in Plato’s Symposium or other such works. Why? Who does not act for their own self-interest? Who does not prefer the tings which feel good? This idea of doing things at cost and no benefit to oneself is as foreign today as it was when Christ walked the earth. Yet consider Jesus’ model.  No greater love than this . . .

     Jesus is calling upon God’s people, in particular those students of the torah, to emulate the love discussed in the Old Testament. God, throughout the entirety of the Old Testament, is often described as loving His people. But His love is a unique love. The Old Testament speaks of God’s hesed toward His people. No matter what they do, no matter how they act, God stays committed to His people. Even when He is disciplining His people, God is committed to His people (like a Father chastising properly a wayward child) and working to redeem them. We might say, we should say really, God's love is a covenant love. Yes, God loves His people passionately. But no matter what His people do, God will continue to keep the obligations His love of His people places upon Himself.  That's part, I think, of why He uses the descriptions of a marriage to describe His relationship with His people.

     Compare that to the above mentioned way of marriage in this age. Marriage is hard work. Very hard. A number of us here have been through divorces and remarriages. perhaps some of us, or some of our loved ones are in the midst of these break-ups or newfound relationships.  We know that there are spousal behaviors which grate upon us. Worse, we know that there are substantive differences – we are, after all, two distinct persons in a marriage. We might find it inconvenient that he leaves the toilet seat up constantly or that she always wants to talk about serious things during the climactic finish to the week’s big sporting event, but those are , in the end, no big deal. No, the real fights begin when we start discussing how the I is to become part of the “we.” The less able we are to make a marriage into a “we”, the harder it becomes to see the point in staying committed to one another. The same lesson can be applied in parenting, at work, and in a number of life’s activities.
     The selfless love which you and I are called to offer to God and to our neighbor, by contrast, continues simply because we view such activities as a commitment. Some couples commit to staying married because, let’s face it, there are times when that lack of commitment would have driven them to divorce. The same is true of parenting. Who like the nagging, the screaming, teenage angst, and the general lip that children sometimes have? We do it, and try to do it well, because we are committed to the relationship. No matter what the child does, we still remain the father or the mother.  And we pray we survive those difficult ages, or perhaps, we pray that the kids survive those difficult ages.

     Jesus, in these two great commandments was calling us to that kind of relationship, that kind of love. Knowing that God has acted once and finally to redeem us, how can we ever not love Him? Yet, how many times do we withhold our love and choose, instead, to love ourselves and trust our own efforts? Knowing that He died to save us, how can we ever not reach a helping hand out in love? To be sure, neither of these committed or covenant loves are easy. Too often, the world makes God’s seem like He is anything but a Father in heaven. We begin to seek passion in the arms of lovers, balms to our pains and sufferings in an empty bottle or drug, and validation in our rung on the corporate ladder or the various material goods that we try to possess, rather than seeking to trust and follow and commit ourselves to God.  We think we have needs, we think we know the best time and best way for Him to help, and complian bitterly how rarely does He seem to act when we tell Him.  Does that still sound like His love?  Does that sound like something can draw others to Him?
     And who wants to risk truly loving His neighbor? If we get nothing back, why do it? Never mind the fact that sometimes, the best love one can show, is to say no. Just as a parent tells a child no, hopefully for the child's benefit (don't eat that and spoil your appetite, don't you dare leave the house dressed like that, yes, you must be home by . . . ), you and I are called always to act in the interest of the other. Who wants to tell a young couple that they should not live together even though everyone else is doing it and we don’t want to seem to prudish? How many of us really want to argue with a tax cheat and remind them that God has declared tax cheating stealing? It’s a victimless crime, right? Who really wants to speak the peace of God into a relationship that is about to be severed or about to result in war for fear that we might be considered “Jesus freaks?”  It sure is not easy.
     Following God, though, is hard work. He described it as a cross. Let's be honest, the perfect love for Him was the cross.  When we undergo that sacramental experience of baptism, we remind ourselves that we have died with Him. We ask God for the grace to bury our selves, the I, in the tomb with Him. And we ask Him to give us His eyes, His ears, and His heart -- we ask Him to give us life.  We have, in other words, committed our mind, our will, and our heart to Him and to doing what He wills. Committed love, brothers and sisters, is the love about which Jesus was speaking to the Pharisee. Committed love, brothers and sisters, is the love that God had for you and for me and which ultimately drove Him to the cross for our sakes. Committed love, brothers and sisters, is the only way that you and I can be freed from our bonds. Committed love, brothers and sisters, is the obedient love which leads to true freedom and true joy, both now and for all eternity!

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