To the Jewish people, the law was fundamental. There are more than 600 commandments in the Old Testament, so people such as the Pharisees and Sadducees spent a great deal of time interpreting the laws. Trying to understand which of the laws bore greater importance and which lesser, this was done to educate and instruct people in the right way to live, with their neighbors and with God. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were on top of this process for quite a while, and then some rabble-rouser named Jesus came along and got things all stirred up.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were losing ground in their battles, trying to outwit Jesus Christ. So, the Pharisees and the Sadducees did what any two rival gangs would do; they joined forces to defeat their common foe. One day, a Pharisadducee gang member stood up and asked Jesus which commandment is the greatest (remember there were more than 600). The Pharisadducees thought they could trick Jesus. Instead, Jesus quoted from the Book of Deuteronomy, "You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind," and then Jesus quoted Leviticus adding, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Hundreds of pages with thousands upon thousands of words, and countless years of human experience, with God's interventions, are all contained in two sentences. Simple to read, easy to comprehend. but what are they like to live?
There was once a beautiful bouncing baby girl born to a loving but somewhat older couple. This baby had a stable and well-off home and very grateful parents; after all, they had waited a long time for their precious bundle of joy to arrive. This child grew into a compassionate young woman who had a safe and secure life, even if it was somewhat sheltered. Until one day, while in her home, she found herself alone with an intruder. A stranger had gotten into her protected environment. This was a new experience and not a good one. The young woman became apprehensive. She did not know what was going to happen next. Then this stranger spoke to her and said, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with the Lord." This intruder was a messenger from God, and Mary was told she had chosen for a very particular task, and her reply was "yes."
Mary said "yes" because she loved God with all her heart and soul and mind. Mary kept saying yes to God and trusting in him and did not ask what would be happening next.
Mary went from living a quiet life under her parents' roof to being married to one man, but carrying the child of someone else, having to take a long road trip, while being enormously pregnant, with the only transportation available having four hooves. I'll bet that saddle was not a pillow top. She had to give birth in a stable surrounded by noisy, smelly animals, and speaking of stinky, out of nowhere, some random shepherds drop by. Then three extravagantly dressed men, who only spoke broken Aramaic, stopped in. There's always that rumor about some kid going around banging on a drum. You must think what next? But because Mary loved her God with all her heart and soul and mind, she said yes to this and more. Mary did not know what was coming next, but she trusted out of love for her God. From her encounter with the angel Gabriel to watching her beloved Son, bloodied and beaten, die on a cross, like a common criminal, for the sins of other people. She gave everything she had for God.
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind." The Old Testament meaning of love is different than ours is. Love is not an emotion. That warm fuzzy feeling inside that can take someone in a whirlwind and just as suddenly disappear. No, love is a responsibility. To love means you have value in someone else's life. Love is bringing light into someone else's life and not expecting anything in return. Love is an unconditional commitment to the imperfect.
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself" before you can love our neighbor, you must first love yourself. But why should we love ourselves - because each one of us is a unique, one-of-a-kind creature. In Psalm 139, we hear, "You formed my innermost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb, I praise you, so wonderfully you made me." No one is here by accident; many things had to happen for you to come into the world. What if your great grandparents had only the standard 2.5 children instead of eight? What if your grandparents lived in different towns and never met? What if your mother had married your uncle and not your father? If any one of countless variables had been different, you would not have been born. The chances of you coming into existence are 1 in 400 trillion. You would not have lived the life you did nor be sitting here now. The creator made you and then breathed life into you. You are made in the image and likeness of God, and no matter how we tarnish or pervert or sully the image, there is still a part of you that is pure and perfect and divine, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of that.
We should love our neighbor the way we would want to be loved, and we should love ourselves the way our neighbor would want to be loved. As it is written in Colossians, "Put on then as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another."
And who is our neighbor? Yes, it is easy to recognize some of our neighbors, such as our employees, the delivery people, the folks who live in town, the other side of the state, the people on the other side of the country, and even the other side of the world. But what about the people on the other side of the aisle or the other side of the lunch buffet?
"You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind," and "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." As Pearl Baily said, "People see God every day; they just don't recognize Him."Photograph by Brother Anthony Khan. Today's homily by Deacon Brother Stephen.