We’re not used to hearing love your neighbor as yourself followed by Jesus asking a rather strange question.
We’re used to hearing Jesus tell us the greatest commandment followed by someone else asking a clarifying question – but who is my neighbor?
And then probably the most famous parable there is – the Good Samaritan.
It’s worth reminding ourselves of that story to help us understand Jesus’ response this morning in Matthew. Which like a lot of Jesus in the gospels is the same and is different.
In Luke’s telling (10:25-37) the young lawyer wants to know who can be in the category of “not neighbor.” Because that’s how the world teaches us to categorize one another. We define ourselves by what is different. Religious systems do this too – Jesus spends much of his time pointing this out – with their “clean and unclean” labels. Constantly defining others by who is in – and who is out.
And as Jesus reminds us often, he came to abolish that “law” in order to fulfill one so much bigger. The fulfillment of the law is an embodied way of living that does not constrict or close our circles of involvement. Fulfillment opens us to a liberating, lifegiving, law of love. Inclusion of all of ourselves and all of our neighbors.
When we hear the word love we tend to start thinking about feelings. When we have felt love, if we feel love right now, or if we wonder what exactly that kind of love feels like. But the love Jesus is talking about exists regardless of what we are feeling in any given moment. This love is a movement, it is enacted and embodied. This love is not a feeling that happens to us. This love is a choice. It is our chosen response.
We choose to see and treat every person – every person – as a child of God. We chose to see and treat ourselves as a child of God. All of us as beloved. All of us as worthy.
Love God with all your heart, soul and mind is not about what we may or may not feel towards God. It is choosing to turn the entirety of our attention - the attention of our heart, soul and mind to God – not just a piece of them, or a part of them – but all our heart, all our soul and all our mind.
What does that look like? It looks like Jesus’ earlier teaching in Matthew on prayer (Matt 6): go into your room, shut the door, and pray. Be with your Father in heaven while you are here on earth. Go deep into that internal reality that exists all the time which Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven within you. Go and spend some time there. Prioritize that practice in your life.
What happens in that kingdom of heaven within you? I don’t know. I trust Jesus when says, that God knows. I trust Jesus because he did it, all the time, in his time on earth.
So, loving God with the fullness of my heart, soul and mind means I give the fullness of myself to God. I bring to that kingdom within me all “the feels.” Because the feelings are trying to dictate who I am, the feelings can take over which is why I need to let them go so I can give the fullness of myself to God. I can remind myself that those feelings aren’t “me.”
I bring to that kingdom my sadness, my fears, my concerns, my questions, my doubts, joys, excitements, hope, longings, my failings, my insecurities, my frustrations, my desires, this list could go on for a long time.
And then when my heart and mind, in other words my thoughts lead me down the internal path of fixing, solving, ruminating and storytelling, I recognize they are taking away my full attention. So I attempt to return that attention to God.
I remember to focus on breathing (a gift of God) or a word (that reminds me of God). And this light, gentle reminder turns my attention again, towards simply being, abiding with God.
And in a way that I do not understand practicing that “turn”, practicing the choice of my embodied attention, practicing it with patience, dedication and self-compassion becomes a patterned practice in my life. It is what allows me to turn the fullness of my attention with patience, dedication and compassion to my neighbor.
The practice is what allows me to see what I don’t want to see. The ways in which I participate in categorizing who is my neighbor and who isn’t. The ways in which I turn a blind eye. The practice continuously opens up my attention to God, all around me. In every person, in all creation.
Jesus poses his question in Matthew’s to expand the ways in which we see. The Good Samaritan story does that too - but Matthew’s hearers, are not Luke’s. Matthew was writing to people concerned, I would say overly concerned, with family lineage.
This is why Matthew’s gospel starts off like this: This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob…and goes on with what we call “the begats” until vs 16 – when we read: Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah. (Matt 1:1-16)
Jesus is connected to this lineage with God, not Joseph, as Father. Because this lineage isn’t the whole story.
When Jesus asks his question this morning, how can David call the Son of David, Lord? He claims his authority with God, the Father. The answer is that David can call Jesus Lord – because Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.
And the Messiah has spent his ministry embodying the reality that the family of God is broader than any of us want it to be. The family of God extends beyond our circles. With his teaching and his being he continuously expounds on what his forebearers have said from the beginning.
Like John the Baptist – the one who reminds us to turn to God again and again – said to these same religious authorities when they came down to the Jordan: “Do not think that because you have Abraham and Sarah as your ancestors that that in and of itself makes you special” God can raise up children out of stones. (Matt 3)
Or before that when the first to see the child of God, the first to pay homage, share the good news, and risk their safety were the outsiders, the Magi. (Matt 2)
Jesus has this consistent message our family is God’s family. Our neighbors are the people we do not want to see. God wants our full attention, even the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see. We are to let light into all those places so we strengthen the eyes of our heart. (Ephesians 1:18)
So I practice letting light in. I practice being patient, dedicated and compassionate with myself when I go, shut the door to the room and open the door to my heart.
And then day by day, I practice turning my attention where God leads me to my neighbor. And with patience, dedication and compassion I try and see, speak and act with that same attention and awareness.
A few weeks ago someone said to me, “If I just knew when all this would end – I’d be fine.” There is a lot of “all this” these days – a lot of uncertainties; unknowns; so many infinite feelings of endless timelines with no fixed dates.
Yes, and. Jesus offers us a way of being in the world that gives us strength in this reality. It is a way of being that we can practice. Because we trust God. We trust the law of love. We trust that God is working God’s purpose out. And even when we don’t “feel” it we have a choice to turn our attention to God, as we are able.
Just as our psalmist reminds us from ages ago:
Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God.
Satisfy us by your loving-kindness in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life.
May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork. Amen.