Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
October 31, 2021
In the state of Texas, it is illegal, absolutely illegal, to milk someone else’s cow. Don’t you love it? In the state of Texas, it is illegal to shoot buffalo from the second story of a hotel. I’ve got some questions about this one. I really want to meet the guy who did this. I bet he’s a character. Now, these are only laws because somebody was actually milking another person’s cow and shooting buffalo from the second floor of hotels. You don’t make laws forbidding things that people aren’t doing. If people never stole, we wouldn’t have laws against theft. If people always drove safely, we wouldn’t have speed limits. We have laws about things that are actually happening.
And so one of the scribes asks Jesus, “which commandment, which law is greatest?” Of all the bad things people are doing, which is the worst? Is it murder? Adultery? Lying, cheating, stealing? Jesus says, “love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord God with everything you have.” So think about this with me – that means that Jesus knows people back then weren’t loving their neighbors and they weren’t loving God. You don’t have to say, “love your neighbor” if you’re already loving your neighbor.
I think that one of the worrisome trends in modern social life is that we are always talking about how divided we are, how bad things are. We’ll say things like, “if only we could get back to a time when we just got along.” And tell me – when was that? When was a time that everybody loved their neighbors as themselves? I’m a history guy. I’ve spent my whole life studying people who hated each other. Which has been the entirety of human existence. And when exactly was it that we all loved the Lord God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength? Not even Adam and Eve, who knew God in the flesh, loved the Lord with such dedication. Since the very beginning, we humans have not loved each other or God. Let’s not kid ourselves; love does not come naturally.
Now, Jesus’ response is called “The Summary of the Law.” And notice how it begins – “Hear.” “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Hear, listen, pay attention, check this out. The commandment begins with Jesus demanding that we hear him. Hearing, then, is the path to love. Listening, hearing, is the first step in opening our hearts. After hearing that the Lord is One, then we’re prepared to love our neighbors and to love God. But it’s rooted in hearing and in listening.
So let’s start with loving our neighbors. We have to listen to them. We have to hear them. Jesus knows that we don’t actually pay attention to what he or anybody else is saying. Instead we’re formulating our response as they are talking. Or, we just go ahead and talk right over the other person. We’ve modeled our conversations off of those terrible political cable news shows to which we’ve all become addicted. We’ve got our ideas, and we are certain that if only we talk enough, with enough conviction, then we can get other people to our side. And when they don’t come to our side, we classify them as a “difficult person.” Well, this is awkward to say – but you might just be the difficult person. You might just be the person who won’t listen and will just keep on talking. Lord knows I’ve been that person before, and it’s usually been because I’ll speak but I won’t listen.
And yet our Lord commands us to hear, to listen, and then to love our neighbor. It’s such incredible wisdom. You’re not going to learn anything if all you’re doing is talking. You’re not going to grow into a better person if you never open your ears to what someone else might be saying. The path to love, the path to wisdom, is through our ears. So I’m going to make this real practical. This week, you’re going to be in a conversation with someone. And they’re going to say something that you disagree with. They’re going to say something that bothers you. Now, usually we just talk past that. We pretend we didn’t hear it. But this week I challenge you to invite that other person to talk more about what they said. If they say something you disagree with, say, “tell me how you came to believe that.” Say, “I want to hear more of your thoughts on that.” It’ll be weird, and it might be hard. But that’s what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. If you think your opinions are important, then the other person does, too. This week, I challenge you to listen.
And if you do that, if you invite them to talk more, and it gets weird, don’t blame me. It was Jesus who told you to love your neighbor as yourself, I’m just the messenger. I’m in sales, not management. And let’s do this together, I promise to do it, too. I’m going to try to speak less and listen more. And through that listening, I’m going to try to open my heart to them and hear, really hear what they have to say.
And the same goes with loving God. The path to loving God runs through our ears. This is why there is always silence in the bible when God shows up. Think about it – Elijah knows God in the sheer silence on Mount Horeb. Jesus goes to pray by himself for forty days. Like a lamb before its shearers is mute, Jesus is silent even when he’s spit on, whipped, and crucified. Saint Paul, perhaps the greatest talker in the bible, spends three years learning and listening before he goes off preaching about Jesus and starting churches. God is in the silence. So this week when you’re running up against a difficult decision, I challenge you to hear, listen, pay attention. Spend some time in silence and listen for what the Lord God would have you do. I know that your brain will want to fill that dead air. You’ll want to flick on the tv or scroll through Instagram; resist the urge. Be quiet, listen for God, open your ears so that the Lord God can open your heart to love. It’s in the silence that you will discover the Lord’s presence in your life.
It’s not what we naturally do, but listening is the way to wisdom, to love, to faithfulness. Open your ears, open your hearts in love. Because that’s what Jesus did. Jesus never told us to do anything he wouldn’t do himself. And the same is true here. He loved his neighbors, and he loved the Lord with everything he had. Jesus listened; he listened to the poor, to the sick, to the hurting, to the lonely. He listens to me and he listens to you. And because he hears, because he really hears he has empathy and from that empathy comes love. Enough love to open wide his arms upon the cross.
This kind of Jesus-love, this kind of commandment love is not easy. It’s hard. Because loving your neighbor and loving God with everything you’ve got means that we’ll end up on a cross with Jesus. Let’s not sugar coat this – loving your neighbor, loving God, opening your ears, your arms, and your hearts to love is not necessarily the recipe for what the world would call a happy life. It can be awfully inconvenient having to love your neighbor and love God. It would be so much easier to listen to ourselves all day long. But listening to and loving our neighbors and our God is what Christians would call a good life. The life of love. So this week – listen deeply to someone with whom you disagree; listen deeply to God when you’re making a decision. And in that deep listening, you will hear the voice of Jesus, the one who first loved us.