Carved In Stone
The Greatest Commandment
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’
In her introductory essay for a poetry anthology, Eavan Boland tells the story of her first time hearing the poem “Tyger Tyger Burning Bright” by William Blake. She was six years old in the comfort of her living room, and she heard the timber of her father’s voice. The same voice that praised her first steps. The same voice that shouted “get down from there” when she climbed too high. The same voice that read her stories at night.
And yet, there was something different. Changed. Poetry changed him. When he read “Tyger Tyger Burning Bright,” his voice took on a different tone. A different rhythm. A cadence and tempo that lifted her into another world. Her father’s voice. And a poem. Intermingled.
And, then there were the words. “Tyger. Tyger.” Her six year old self was transported back, back to the year before. “Tyger. Tyger.” This time, she was five years old, at the zoo, in what was called the large cat building. Five years old and surrounded, not by family, but by strangers. Lost. Unable to find her dad. Her heartbeat racing. Her panic growing. “Tyger. Tyger.” And then, the timber of her father’s voice, slicing through the crowd: his voice, too, strained. His heartbeat racing. “Tyger. Tyger.” The poem brought her back to that large cat building.
And so Eavan Boland asks: “when was it that the poem began?” Did it begin at six years old, there in her living room? Or did the poem begin the year before when she first saw the tiger? Where does poetry begin? In the words on the page, and our first hearing of those words, or in our lived experience, our encounter with the world, first, before the word?
And, as we read today such a familiar Scripture passage, I wonder the same thing: where does this scripture passage begin? Does it begin today, when you heard it read aloud? Or does it begin somewhere in some more ancient beginning?
Back when it was your mother’s voice, your father’s voice, your grandfather’s voice, speaking those same words: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength? And love your neighbor as yourself?
Or maybe, it begins before you even heard it, back when your experience of God was precognitive, ever-present, the unspoken nearness of divine love present before anyone ever uttered the love of God in your midst?
Where does this scripture passage begin? Whose voice do you hear? The pastor of your childhood? Your first Sunday school teacher? Do you hear, even, your own voice, this passage so deeply written upon your heart that you cannot separate out your knowledge of it?
What is the greatest commandment the Pharisees asks Jesus? (Trying to trick him). And Jesus replies, love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Where does this scripture passage begin? It begins long before today. Long before today’s struggle to love neighbor began to rise up in us. Loving our neighbor has been an urgent and seemingly impossible task for decades, centuries, millennia. We wouldn’t come back to the straightforward, uncomplicated command if it were easy. We’d just check it off our list of to-dos and never look back.
But it is a demanding request: love your neighbor as yourself. And, Jesus knew that. He knew love-your-neighbor was a ubiquitous, universal, persuasive, common, well known, recognized, even orthodox understanding of our ethical duty.
Love your neighbor. It’s as if Jesus were asked “what is the most important rule in baseball?” And instead of saying, “three strikes and you’re out” against which any lawyer could argue, Jesus answered, “Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd… root, root, root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame.”
Love of God and neighbor is the theological theme song of all Jewish and Christian writing—of all religious writing, really, if you look at the ethical underpinnings of all world religions.
- “Love God and neighbor” is bedrock, cornerstone, and foundation.
- “Love God and neighbor” is heart, marrow, nucleus.
- “Love God and neighbor” is the meat and potatoes of our Christian vocation.
This “greatest commandment” is found in three of the four gospels, and even John, who does not have this “greatest commandment” has more mentions of love than any other book in the Bible, so maybe you could say the gospel of John is just an expanded essay on the greatest commandment. John is where you get “for God so loved the world.” And “just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” And “abide in my love.”
Biblical scholar Tom Long says, “Loving our neighbors—our real neighbors, the ones who come at us with jagged edges—is ethically and humanly impossible. There is simply too much history, too many layers of deception and bitterness, too much risk.” But, he says, “with God, all things are possible, and it takes an act of God—it takes an experience of the love of God— before the love of neighbor can take place.”
So Jesus leaves us with an ethical impossibility. With a standard so high we cannot reach it. With an ideal so beyond our ability to attain, we are doomed from the start to fail. Okay we can talk about the thousands of ways we have failed at loving God and neighbor. We can confess the hundreds of ways, even just this week, that we have not loved our neighbor.
In the gospel of Luke, when Jesus answers “love God and love neighbor,” the lawyer questioning him chimes back, “and who is my neighbor?” To which Jesus responds with a story: A man was traveling from Jericho to Jerusalem. A steep mountain road. A dangerous road. A road where robbers were likely. And that man was attacked by robbers and left for dead. Along comes a religious leader, who passes him by. Along comes another religious leader, who passes him by. Finally, along comes the unexpected hero. The Samaritan. The one Jesus knew everyone suspected was the antithesis of “love your neighbor.”
And, does he pass by the man? No. He binds up his wounds. Carries him to the next town. Pays for his treatment. That is the impossible sacrificial searching and tender way to love your neighbor.
“Love your neighbor” is as familiar to you as the groves in the palms of your hands, as familiar as your mother’s voice, as familiar as the tune Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee. It was there long before you could give voice to it. Love your neighbor. It is in its own way, embedded in the fabric of our nation.
Yes there is much to critique about our country’s legacy, but right now it seems important to remember that “love your neighbor” is a constant and abiding impossible dream that stands alongside our national impossible dream that all are created equal with unalienable rights.
- Love your neighbor was there when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
- Love your neighbor was there when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
- Love your neighbor was there when New York City carved Emma Lazarus’s 1883 words “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” into the base of the Statue of Liberty.
- Love your neighbor was there when the founding fathers signed us up for the then and even still, ever always imperfect embodiment of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” that yet remains our common dream.
- “Love your neighbor” was there when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed in 1948 by the United Nations.
- “Love your neighbor” was right here, at Kenilworth Union Church, when we literally carved it in stone at the front of our church.
- “Love your neighbor” undergirds everything we hold dear.
- “Love your neighbor” is the way you treat your spouse, your children, your mother, your sister.
- “Love your neighbor” is your relationship with your boss, and your employees.
- “Love your neighbor” is the way you respond to the need of a stranger.
- “Love your neighbor” is the way you reach out in crisis.
- “Love your neighbor” is the impossible dream to which we all set our hopes, especially today, in the midst of a fraught political climate, an ever evolving pandemic, an unfinished climate crisis and a deep longing for community that even now remains an impossible possibility.
God writes the gospel, not just in the Bible alone, but in our hearts, in our hands, in our very being. God writes within us a way of love that is possible, only and especially when we tune our lives to the divine song that has been within us all along. May we live into the hope, the challenge, the impossible possibility of loving our neighbor, even now. Amen.
 Strand, M., & Boland, E. (2005). The making of a poem: A Norton anthology of poetic forms. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
 Long, Thomas. "The Love of God and the Love of Neighbor." Journal for Preachers, 41 no. 1 Advent 2017, p. 21-30.