Love your neighbor

Twenty-second Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 25, 29 October 2023: Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

The Pharisees ought to have known better by this point in Jesus’ ministry. If you ask Jesus questions, you will not come out of it well. In today’s gospel, they ask what is the greatest commandment. Jesus answers with complete orthodoxy.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 6:5, the start of the sermon of Moses before the Israelites enter the land they are to be given. Moses tells the Israelites to “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.“(Deut 6:7-9) In other words, Moses had told the people of Israel that this was their central obligation. To this day, Jews put a mezuzah on their doors, and rolled inside is a scroll with the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 6:6-9, 11.

But Jesus adds another commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. This is taken from another version of commandments given by Moses, and the full text of the verse is interesting: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord“. (Lev 19:18)

Jesus continues, telling the Pharisees that “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Again, this was not a controversial statement. Many discussions of the Ten Commandments refer to the two tables, with the first set of commandments being our duties to God, and the second set our duties to our neighbor. You can certainly fit all of the ten commandments under these two.

These two commandments are thus central to Jews and to Christians. But we all know that both of these are simultaneously simple and hard. Jesus’ answer invites more questions. What does it mean to love God with all our heart? what does it mean for our human loves? And how should we love ourselves? Because only if we know how to love ourselves do we know how to love our neighbors.

I confess that this week, as we watch the terrible violence in Israel and especially Gaza, I was particularly struck by the full text of the verse Jesus references for the second part of his statement. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people.” We are singularly bad at this as individuals and as societies. I suspect that I’m not the only one who remembers vividly the ways I think someone or other has hurt me. I hold grudges. And we do it as nations. We hold grudges, and we seek vengeance.

There is nothing simple about loving our neighbors, even without thinking we should not hold grudges. Yet we often feel helpless in the face of violence and vengeance. The violence is Gaza is grounded in a long history of both antisemitic violence and violence against Palestinians. In the Episcopal Church’s office of Government Relations email calling for a ceasefire, they suggest both reaching out to those with political power, and prayer. Here is what Bishop Curry said this week:

Prayer matters and makes a difference. We must pray. So, pray for wisdom and moral courage for world leaders so that violence does not beget more violence—because violence doesn’t work, and violence will not bring about a just and sustainable and enduring peace.

We can all pray. So let us pray, that we and those throughout the world may learn to love God, and love our neighbors.

What do we owe?

Twenty-first Sunday of Pentecost, Proper 24, October 22, 2023: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

Today’s gospel provides a line that is often cited out of context: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s”.

This seemingly simple answer is a way of deflecting a trick question from the Pharisees. This is always a sign with Jesus that the answer will not be as simple as it seems. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor” seems to demand a yes or no answer. But Jesus asks first to see the coin which would pay the tax.

This may mean that he did not carry money: just as he instructed his followers to “take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts” in Matthew 10, he traveled without money and lived outside the normal exchange economy.

Whether Jesus did not carry money, or asked for it for dramatic effect, he uses the coin to answer the question. The coin has the emperor’s head on it. So that is his. What Jesus did not say, but his listeners would have known, was that we were made in the image of God.

In life, answering the question of what we owe to God and to the state can sometimes be complicated: should we pay taxes to support policies we think are unjust? What is it that belongs properly to God? How can we be faithful to God and faithful to a government that will, almost inevitably, in one way or another act counter to God’s will as we discern it? Numerous protest movements in the U.S.–abolition, Civil Rights, anti-war, pro-birth–have, after all, based their resistance on their understanding of their moral obligations.

There is no simple answer to the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to the political power under which we live. It is, instead, a question we will answer in different ways at different times. But we need to remember it is a question.


19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22, 8 October 2023; Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

The Lord’s delivery of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 is very dramatic. It takes place, we learn in the previous chapter, in the third month after the Israelites left Egypt. After two days of preparation, the Israelites are at the foot of Mt. Sinai, while Moses is called to the top of the mountain, and then told to get his brother Aaron. Everyone else is at the foot of the mountain.

The mountain is shrouded in cloud and smoke, and there is thunder and lightening, and the sound of a trumpet. It was evident that something important was happening. And it appears the Israelites are grateful that God is speaking to Moses, not to them: they are convinced that should God speak to them, they will die.

What God has to tell Moses is not complicated, just ten rules for living. They deal with four big things. First, our relationship with God. Second, our relationship with time. Third, our relationship with family and neighbors. Finally, our relationship with money and wealth.

These were rules which sought to create new ways of being as the Israelites built their life away from the Egyptians. They are often simplified into two, love God and love your neighbor. But do more, pushing back against overwork and exploitation.

“Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy”. This is part of loving God, making time for God. But it is also taking time away from work. A right relationship with the world makes time for rest and worship.

Similarly, the command not to covet represented a direct challenge to the exploitation the Israelites had left behind in Egypt. After all, as we learned in Exodus 1, their enslavement had been a result of the Egyptians’ fear that the Israelites would become more numerous and more prosperous than they. The Egyptians coveted the wealth and power the Israelites had accumulated, so enslaved them.

We see the results of such covetousness again in today’s gospel. In his parable, Jesus describes tenants who covet the owner’s vineyard. They decide to kill the heir, so they can seize his inheritance. Here covetousness leads to murder. In contrast, the tenth commandment suggests a world where all are allowed to flourish equally.

A world governed by the commandments God gave Moses would be a world of peace and flourishing. We do not live in that world, if anyone ever has. Many people find themselves working two jobs, and our culture celebrates overwork. In a society where the rich have become exponentially richer over the past twenty years and the wealth of most has been stagnant or falling, exploitation is baked into our society and our laws. On television and Instagram, we are encouraged to covet the lives of the rich and famous. Our relationships with God, each other, and to time and money are all distorted.

God is calling us to think about how we live in the world. And we have a relatively simple and clear set of guidelines to transform it. How can we begin to live into it?

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, October 1, 2023: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

The Israelites are still in the desert, and they are camping in a place with no water. The writer of Exodus tells us that “the people quarreled with Moses”, because without water they would die. Why did we leave Egypt, they wondered, just to die in the wilderness? Moses reports the quarrel to the Lord, who rather than rebuking the people, provides water: if Moses will use the staff he used to part the Red Sea to strike a particular rock, there would be water. And so it was. Whatever he thought of their complaints, the Lord knew that the Israelites needed water.

“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” This command from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is one many have taken to heart, but which has also been the source of great harm. Some have read this verse, and others like it, as making it an obligation to not think of yourself. This reading has especially been directed at those without power; in doing so, it has enabled many kinds of abuse.

I have often read this in light of my understanding of the great commandment: to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. At some point, someone pointed out to me that you had to love yourself well to love your neighbor well. Yet we do not talk much about what it means to love yourself. What are we allowed? At the very least, we are allowed water in the desert.

I was intrigued this week to read that Greek texts have a word that is often omitted in English translations: “also”. Philippians 4 would then read “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This shifts the focus, and makes more sense with Paul’s message, which is how the church at Philippi could flourish as a healthy community. To flourish, to be a community of compassion whose love overflows, members need to be able to care for themselves and for others. Like the Israelites, they need to be able to ask for water in the desert.

Modern Christians have had trouble with the idea that we should think of ourselves, that our own needs are important. We pay attention to the need for service, to give of ourselves to others. To do this without attending to our own needs leads to people burning out. The needs of the world are great, and none of us can attend to all of them. And unless we have the water we need to live, we will not be able to respond. There is a difference between acknowledging our own needs and being full of “selfish ambition”.

It is easier to make a simple statement: think of others first. But both the writer of Exodus and Paul suggest a more complex situation. We need to attend to our own needs in order to respond to others. Only then can we be part of a community, as Paul suggests in verse 15, that will “will shine among them like stars in the sky”.