Haddaway asks that wonderful question, What is love?, in his song made famous by Will Farrell and Chris Kattan. Haddaway answers his question with “Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more,” implying that love is simply the absence of hurt or pain. Certainly, that answer is more in line with how society sees love nowadays. We love shoes and bags and teams and actresses and even our spouse, until we no longer do. Then we just replace our old loves with new loves and go right on humming our tune to ourselves and bobbing our heads to the beat. Such an understanding is grounded in St. Paul, is it not? Or is Paul trying to teach us something in Romans that society does not understand and that we have forgotten?
If I asked you to define love, how would you answer? I suspect that, as you consider that question, your thoughts return to that famous description of pornography—it’s hard to describe, but I know it when I see it. If you turned to a dictionary, you might see descriptions such as “a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another” or “a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection toward a person or thing” as proffered definitions. Do those descriptions capture what Paul is saying? Should that be the rule that governs our lives? When Paul claims that love is the fulfilling of the law, what does he mean?
To understand Paul’s view of the law, one must remember first and foremost what Paul understood to be the law. The Greek word that Paul uses is the same word used by the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) torah. I have explained that what writers meant by torah is not just law. Torah includes as sense of instruction, of teaching, as well as law. The torah was God’s answer to Israel’s plead that He teach them what it meant to live in a righteous, holy relationship with God. In a sense, the torah is God’s answer to what life with Him is like. So, when Paul is discussing the law, he is really discussing the torah. Paul is discussing what it means to live with God truly in our midst.
Such, of course, makes perfect sense. Paul studied under the great rabbi, Gameliel. Paul, prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus, was a quick riser in the Temple and synagogues. One did not tend to rise quickly without understanding and keeping the torah, at least outwardly. Paul even reminds his readers that he was righteous under the law.
Part of the problem that Jesus had with the religious authorities of His day was that they made the torah something onerous for the people. When Jesus calls them whitewashed tombs, He is commenting on the outer holiness that hides a spiritually dead heart. When the authorities ask Jesus which law in the torah is most important, Jesus gives the famous answer of the shema and the passage cited by Paul today. Jesus asserts, as one who has authority, that the Great Commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength. The Second Great Commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus then goes on to add that interesting qualifier, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” We know that His qualifier is correct because He was raised from the dead. In fact, we so know it so well that some in this parish spent just over three years studying the book of Deuteronomy. Part of the reason for the lengthy study was that we wanted to figure out how each individual law related to the first ten and to the Great Two. Did we figure them all out? Nope. But it was a fascinating, if exhausting, process, one that I like to think we are all better for having tried. Why are we called to do some things? Why are we proscribed from doing others?
And make no mistake, God was unhappy with a great number of His people and not just the leaders. How many times in Scripture does He describe His people as stiff-necked? How many times does He remind us that our hearts will need to be circumsized before we can enter into His family?
Paul’s understanding of love hinges on these two great commandments and on the work and person of Christ Himself. Love, for Paul, is not a feeling, an intense passion, a strong desire. Love is a commitment. Those of us who have been married understand why God describes His love for us as a marriage. Hopefully all of us who have been married have experienced that “honeymoon” phase. When we are in that phase of a new relationship there is, rightly, intense passion. We want to be together with the one we love all the time. But, somewhere between six and twenty-four months, that relationship begins to change. Ladies discover that we men pass gas, loudly, and leave toilet seats up, always. Men discover that ladies obsess about a myriad details only during important sporting events. That book, Men are from Mars Women are from Venus, nails it. We are radically different from one another. Women are taught that men can be controlled by food and by sex; men are told “just say yes and save yourself a ton of grief.” You are laughing a bit, but there is a bit of rueful laugh in your chuckles.
It’s at this point, though, when the honeymoon phase has passed, that love asserts itself. We are called to commit to our husbands and wives even when they most drive us nuts, even when we discover that they are most definitely not the person we thought they were, even when they are the most unloveable. Divorce, for Christians, is not supposed to be an option because we represent God on earth. Our marriages reflect however dimly and faintly the relationship of the Trinity to the world around us. Why do we not give up on each other? Because God never gave up on us! Though we gave Him reason after reason to leave us in our tattered wedding dress, still He loved us!
All of this brings about to Paul’s instruction: love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Love is a commitment, a covenant that we share. If marriages might best be said to represent that commitment, our relationship to each other as sons and daughters of God must as well. How so? Everything that we do is supposed to glorify God. We talk around here in the language of ambassadors. God has bound Himself to us through baptism in such a way that our honor and His honor are intertwined. When we do as we should, when we live and act righteously, He is honored. When we live and act as hypocrites; He is dishonored. Just as importantly, however, when we are dishonored unjustly, He is dishonored. Better still, when we are justly honored, He is, too! That’s how and why we can leave judgment and vengeance to Him. As His representatives on earth, we know He takes how the world treats us every bit as seriously as how we interact with the world on His behalf. It is an incredibly weighty honor and responsibility.
You and I are called always, always to live as He would have us live. There are no breaks. There are no, “You know what, Christian, you did a good job for the last six days, take a day off. Why don’t you go ahead and sin at will.” Such an expectation ought to terrify us. Such an expectation, if we focused too much on us, might leave us despairing of ever doing our job properly. And, truthfully, without the Holy Spirit, we would fail far more often than we already do. Yet, for all the demands of the job of representing God on earth, they really can be summed up in two Commandments: The Shema and the command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Everything we do is supposed to love and honor God and love and honor our neighbors.
The real problem, of course, lies in this understanding of what love is. If love is just a warm fuzzy feeling, if love is just a desire, even if love love is a passionate commitment wrongly focused, then we are not loving our neighbors as we should be loving ourselves. Why would I say that? Because the ultimate focus of love has to be God. Everything that we do, every single thing that we do is supposed to be focused on God or helping others to focus on God. The torah gave God’s people a description of the behavior He expected in order that He would be glorified among themselves and among the Gentiles. Did God really expect His people to take a year off every seven years? Did God really expect His people to take two successive years off every fifty? Did God really expect His people to build railings on roof? Did God really care where His people dug latrines or what they ate? Absolutely! Imagine the witness had they taken the Sabbath years and the Year of the Jubilee. Would not their confidence in the Lord to provide for them be the most counter-cultural witness ever? God will provide! Imagine the witness where everyone was concerned with everyone’s safety, well-being, and relationship with God. Imagine the questions that might have come even from faith adherence to the dietary laws. God cares about all those details we think are beneath His notice. And why not? He gave us those jots and tittles; He revealed that He cares about the details just as He cares about each one of us!
The detail of love is that it needs to be focused on God. When we love a neighbor as ourselves, we are helping them stay focused on and to glorify the Lord who redeemed them! I know we hate conflict in the Church, but part of the reason that we have conflict is that we focus less on what God wants for us and from us than we focus on what we want for ourselves. He expected us to have conflict, and Matthew reminds us today of the path by which two or more Christians who love God in accordance with the Shema are to help resolve conflict, to be reconciled to God and to a brother or sister. When we allow a brother or sister or a neighbor to do anything that dishonors God or devalues those things He expects of His people, we are not loving them as ourselves. How can we say that? If God is the measure and object of our love, and we allow people to walk apart from Him without challenging them, we really are not loving them. To be sure, there is a danger that if we are not winsome, if we are not humble, we can sound like we are nagging or condemning. That is to be avoided. But nearly as bad the other way is when we leave unchallenged those behaviors, those activities, even those words that dishonor God.
A practical example of this is played out frequently in the road to sobriety. All of us gathered here today can agree that if one’s focus is so much on alcohol that one loses jobs, loses relationships, loses utilities, loses cars, loses dwellings, and even loses families, one’s focus, one’s love, is in pursuit of the wrong thing. It is ok to drink. It is not ok for the consumption of alcohol to be our primary focus. Families should come first. That means jobs, and homes, and other things come before our pursuit of alcohol. Yet, how often do those on the road to sobriety insist that they have no problem prior to getting sober? How many in their lives choose to be enablers, those who allow or even encourage them to drink? How much do we fear interventions? And that is just for drinking. Imagine the struggles when one’s very soul is at risk! Yet that is our calling. God commands to love our neighbors. That means God calls us to help our neighbors glorify Him in their actions, in their thoughts, and in the words.
Think of sex and pornography to name a subject a little more controversial. What’s the big deal? It’s just sex . . . is the question of society. If love is only an affection, if love is only a strong desire, then there is no big deal. But if God meant sex to glorify Him, maybe it is a far bigger deal than we would ever like to think. Maybe God, and later Paul, knew what He was teaching when He instructed us to keep it within marriage. How many of you have been in my office discussing how your past sex lives interfere in your current marriage? How many wives worry whether their husbands “see” another during sex; how many husbands worry that they don’t “measure up” to their wives’ lovers? And we are all old fogies! We were not raised in the hook-up culture that poisons our children today. If I had a dollar for every time a girl on a college campus asked me how to handle how a boyfriend likes to “finish,” our budget would be a bit bigger. If I had a dollar for every time that a boy told me he could tell when the girl on the computer screen was “doing it” because she enjoyed it and not against her will, our parish hall door would certainly be fixed. Heck, if I had a dollar for every time a man or a woman who claimed to be “an active Christian” fussed at me for trying to take the spice or fun out of their sex life when I talk about these things, we could probably have kept up with our diocesan assessment. Yet we are called, called to remind our brothers and sisters that God intended sex for something far better than hooking up, far better than feeling used or dirty, far better than needing the visions of someone else to spice up our sex lives. Yes, God has something to say about sex. Yes, God is glorified in our sexual relationships in marriage. Yes, God is dishonored when we use our bodies or the bodies of another selfishly. But how many of us choose to look away? How many of us are willing to see our neighbor at enmity with God?
We have, to this point, only used two common examples. How many Christians have I met who did not think to ask their temporary workers if they were getting paid? How many times do we let go unchallenged the idea that others can worship God just fine in the privacy of their bed or fairway of their favorite golf course week in and week out? How many of us forget to tell people that working on Sunday is not an excuse not to worship God on Wednesdays or Thursdays or any other day, for that matter? How many of us do our shopping on Sundays, necessitating that others work? How many of us dine out on Sundays, necessitating that others serve us rather than worship God themselves? How many of us, as I just throw out these few examples, can think of other situations where our actions or our words prevent others from fulfilling the Great Commandment?
What is love, brothers and sisters? Love is a commitment, a covenant, to help all those around us to worship the Lord. We know it best by the commitment our Lord showed Israel and then us. We know it by the work and person of Jesus Christ. When we were His enemies, when we intentionally walked apart from Him, still He sought us, still He acted to save us. Never did He abandon us. That commitment, that covenant, is precisely the devotion you and I are called to display for our neighbors. All our efforts, all our words, all our actions, are supposed to be conducted in such a way that it leads others to God. Anything else, and we fail at the Second great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Tough slogging? You bet. Does it sometimes hurt? Sure. But then Jesus never instructed us to do anything other than pick up a cross and follow him . . .