The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 2017 – Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46
There was a study at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1973. Two social psychologists met with forty seminarians. In one building they completed a questionnaire, then they were instructed to walk across campus to another building to give either a talk on their vocational careers or a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
They were also told to hurry, but to different degrees – slight, medium, and extreme hurry. On the way to the second building, they encountered a person slumped in plain sight, appearing to be in need of help, who was an actor.
The presumption was that people who are religious in a Samaritan fashion will be more likely to help than those of a priest or Levite fashion. The students were in a conflict between helping the victim and meeting the needs of their given tasks.
The result showed that only 10% of those who were in the high hurry category stopped to offer aid to the suffering actor, whereas 63% of those who knew they had a few minutes to spare offered help.
Although the sample size of this study was relatively small, the research outcome suggests that the acts of kindness are largely influenced by situational factors, not simply dispositional ones or any special vocational trainings.
Before we make any presumptions or judgement, let’s consider that thinking about ethical norms and values does not necessarily imply that one will act on them.
Ethics is a practice in the context of need, and Christian ethics, in particular, reflects God’s expectations for us so that not our moral characters but His divine character can be known to those around us by our faithful pursuit of God’s will as we live our lives for His purposes.
Judaism has fine ethical and religious rules. If we go back to the time of Jesus, there were the 613 commandments, so there was a need to reduce the number of those rules to some simplicity.
This explains some social context of the Gospel we read today. When the law keepers ask Jesus about which ones are the greatest commandments, Jesus answers them in a simple form. The greatest of all is to love – the love for God and the love for our neighbours, and he adds that all the other laws are hanging on these two.
Love based on erotic feelings or ecstatic expressions comes and goes, but agape, the unfailing love in reverent devotion travels beyond time and space and transcends our relationships.
In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote: “Someone dear to one can be loved with human love; but an enemy can only be loved with divine love…. Loving with human love, one may pass from love to hatred; but divine love cannot change. Nothing, not even death, can shatter it. It is the very nature of the soul.”
I came from a country that has been divided for sixty-four years by war. When I visited South Korea in 2010, the headline news in the morning the day after my arrival was about the bombardment from the North on an island 75 miles away from my hometown, Seoul. The 1953 armistice put into force a cease fire, but war itself has not ended. I find it very difficult to love people who hurt people.
In his book The Art of Loving, a socio-psychologist, Erich Fromm, defines love from another angle and gives us an insight. He says that “love is a decision; it is a judgment; it is a promise.”
I think that is right. We must decide to love even when our circumstances are not so in favour of us. We must decide to love even when we do not agree with the other person. We must decide to love no matter what. We make a judgment to do what is best for those we decide to love, and we promise to stay in love unconditionally. Such a love is an art, making time to share the burden of the other person, creating space to see the inner beauty of the other person.
Then, true love is a discipline that requires faith and patience, overcoming selfish desires and narcissism.
I do not mean that we should not love ourselves. We need self-worth, as well, to love others as ourselves. But, without the love of God who loved us first, we cannot truly love others. His love for us enables us to forgive others, just as He forgives our trespasses, and His love for us enables us to love those around us, as He loves us, the mortal beings, the sinners, just the way we are.
Our relationship with God, the Creator and the Giver, is the anchor in our lives that helps us to navigate the times of trials and tribulations.
Some love God occasionally only when things are going well. Some love God only in the church but forget elsewhere during the week. We love people, but selectively. We tend to blame something else for our partial love. We tend to put conditions on love.
In 1 Thessalonians, Paul points to ethical duties upon his converts, advising them to please God, not the mortals, and to care for others, sharing not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.
Paul’s ethics equates the divine wisdom of Jesus, the New Torah, who commands us to love “with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind.”
Let us pay attention for a moment to Paul’s metaphoric expression: Care for others like “a nursing mother” (2:7).
Moses’ mother, Jochebed, took a risk to save her son Moses when the pharaoh was killing all the Hebrew baby boys. The daughter of the pharaoh found baby Moses in the river, and later she hired a nurse, who happened to be Jochebed, of course not knowing that she was Moses’ biological mother. The princess disobeyed her father, the merciless king, taking courage to nurse baby Moses. I think the courageous actions of these two women signify the love that is tender as well as self-giving. Moses was in God’s hands, and God included “a nursing mother” in His divine plan to save His people out of the slavery in Egypt.
Mothers are not only a gentle nurse, but they are courageous to advocate for their children through their sacrificial love. Love that is sacrificial involves a cost. Love is painstaking. Yet, God’s love restores such a deep injury, and the restoration process demands forgiveness. And, forgiveness seeks reconciliation.
The vertical line of love for God and the horizontal line of love for others are the Christian foundation, which has been exemplified by the New Adam, Christ our Lord on the cross.
Trusting the Lord does not mean that our life is a smooth pathway, but He gives us strength to pass through it. It is not easy to love the world as our human world is broken and corrupt, filled with war. But, the Scripture says that “when the ways of people please the Lord, He causes even their enemies to be at peace with them” (Proverbs 16:7).
Moses was a transitional man who delivered the Ten Commandments to the Israelites, but Jesus is the living God who walks with us, who leads us from here to eternity.
Faith is not an intellectual pondering, but faith is an act of loving.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord (Romans 8:39).
I started this sermon with an experiment in a seminary setting. It is understandable how we get caught up easily in our time-pressured lives, yet we should strive to love at all times as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel. After all, “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
Lord, may your splendour of love be incarnate in us! Amen!