SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D ALLAN B. WARREN III AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 23, 2011, THE NINETEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it; thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Here we have what is called the Summary of the Law, and I doubt that anyone at Mass today finds what it says surprising.  It is recited and proclaimed at the beginning of most of the Masses celebrated in this church, so it is quite familiar to all of us.  We also heard it this morning from the lips of Jesus as he is recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew, and we find the same thing with slightly different wording in the Gospel of Mark and in a different context in the Gospel of Luke.  Two commandments – love of God and love of neighbor – which are the summary of the law and the substance of the prophets. 

Again, we are all familiar with this crucial part of Jesus’ teaching – the Summary of the Law – and nothing about it surprises us.  And yet, it may have come as a great surprise to those who first heard it from our Lord, for there is something new and original here, something which, it seems, had never been done, never been articulated before.

Everyone knew the commandment to love God.  It was taken from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5) and it was part of the Sh’ma – that declaration of faith recited by Jews twice a day and which served as the center of every public service of prayer.  And everyone knew the commandment to love one’s neighbor.  It was taken from the Book of Leviticus (19:18) and was often discussed in the synagogue.  What is surprising – and it certainly surprised me when I learned it - and what is absolutely original with Jesus is putting the two commandments side by side, and in so doing giving them equal weight and equal authority.  Love of God, love of neighbor, and upon these two depend all the Law and the Prophets.  Indeed they are a summary of all the law and, again, the substance of the teaching of the prophets. 

This is, as some of you have heard me say, this is “classic Jesus.”  It is unmistakable Jesus, and it is original with him.  The two commandments, as familiar as they were to every pious Jew, had never been put together, coupled, given equal weight.  What seems so natural and familiar to you and me would have come as a surprise to those who heard it from Jesus for the first time. 

Some might have been offended.  There was a tradition which taught that each of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Law was of equal weight and to rank them was wrong and offensive to the God who was their author.  But this was an extreme view and accepted by very few.  Most rabbis taught that some commandments were “heavier,” as they said, than others, and among these heavy commandments, love of God and love of neighbor were tanked at the top.  Few would have disagreed with that. 

And yet – again – to set them side by side and to imply that each carried equal weight was something new and original.  And even newer and more original was the teaching – clearly implied by Jesus – that the observance of one depends upon the observance of the other.  They are connected, interdependent.  So much so that it is not going too far to say that Jesus teaches us that in order truly to love God you must love your neighbor, or to put it negatively, you cannot love God without loving your neighbor and you cannot truly love your neighbor without loving God.

Let me say that again:  in order truly to love God you must love your neighbor; in order to love your neighbor you must love God.  Remember:  think back to the Gospel.  He was only asked to single out the greatest of the commandments.  But instead of naming one, he offers two.  And the implication is – again – that each depends upon the other.

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Most of us think of law or laws as duties.  It is our duty to obey the law.  And often – yes – laws are experienced as duties.  We agree that a law is just.  We know that it is our duty to obey it and we do.  And yet there is always a certain onerous quality to duty and to obeying out of duty.  It is something imposed upon us.  It is something required and demanded and there is always a penalty lurking in the background.  Law can be irritating.  It can be a burden.  Law can even be a hindrance.

But what Jesus is proposing is more than law.  What Jesus is proposing is not a duty.  Indeed, it cannot be a duty, for what Jesus is proposing is a life.  Love of God and love of neighbor taken together goes far beyond law or duty.  It is a life.  It is a way of life.  It is a matter of life.  And that is why the two “laws,” as it were, depend upon one another.  They are simply aspects of a life which is animated by the grace and power and the love itself of God.

This is the life which Jesus lived.  This is the life – love of God and love of neighbor – which was the meaning of his ministry.  This is the life which he offered up upon the cross to enable us to live as he did.  This is his risen and new life which, present with us, enables us to live and which bestows upon us the power and the joy of love.

Amen.