When my son was first born, something strange happened to me that can only be described as possession. I needed to hold him or have him near him all the time. When friends would come over to meet him, and would ask to hold him, I’d politely say, “No, thanks.” And when the doctor called us to say that we should bring him to the hospital because his little liver wasn’t working properly, I lost it. The doctor told me later that he was a little surprised when he called us that night, that I was in the background yelling, “You can’t take my baby!”
The need to hold and protect him was powerful, fierce and primal. At one point early in his little life, I had this moment of realizing that what I was experiencing was not demon possession, but was actually a feeling of intense love.
But this feeling of intense, fierce love is not the love that it sounds like we read about in I Corinthians. “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
That doesn’t sound like the love I felt when I first met my children. In fact, compared to that primal experience of love, this love Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians sounds downright polite and respectable.
There is nothing polite or respectable about the love a parent has for their child. Respectable people don’t scream themselves hoarse at little league playoff games, stand up and yell at a graduation when their child’s name is called (even if the principal said not to). Respectable people don’t break eight different traffic laws to get to their kid to the emergency room for minor stitches. Our fierce love for our family leads us to do some pretty outlandish things. Sometimes, kids, we parents act a little possessed because the love we feel is so deep and strong.
Matt. 22:34-46 today is among the most read words of Jesus in scripture. Jesus is asked, “Rabbi which commandment is the greatest?” And Jesus responds, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second commandment is like it, you should love your neighbor as yourself. All the commandments in the law are based on these two basic principles.”
This encounter is the third of three traps that the religious authorities have set for Jesus. The first one was, “It is lawful to pay taxes?” In very Jesus-y fashion, he does not give a direct answer to the question, but he gives the answer that gets to the root of the issue — where does our allegiance lie?
The second trick question was a real doozie: “Rabbi if a man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother. (That is what the law decreed.) Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married and died childless, leaving the widow to his brother. The second did the same and also the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her.”
I’m sure you have also been wondering the answer to this question.
Jesus responds to this trick question by saying, “Folks we worship the God of the living.”
The final trick question was posed by a lawyer sent to Jesus by the religious authorities: “What is the greatest commandment?” And of course, Jesus sidesteps the initial intent of this question, and goes deeper, just like he did with the first two trick questions. In answer to “What is the greatest commandment?” he gets to the root of — love.
The root of the law is not tolerance, it’s not politeness or respectability. It’s love. And while yes, love is often patient and kind and all that, it’s sometimes nothing like that at all. Love is that thing that takes hold of your heart, your mind, and your soul, and leads you to say and do some things that are fierce and primal and passionate.
In the three traps that the religious leaders try to set for Jesus, I don’t think he was nice. Nice people answer questions as they are asked. He refused to do this. He redirected, pointed to something deeper, but refused to fall into the trap of going down a bunny trail of theological nonsense. He pointed to what was deeper, and harder to get at — love.
He answered the questions by digging deeper, because our journey doesn’t end just because we follow the law. Our journey of discipleship is about digging deeper, and getting closer and closer to love.
Sometimes love is patient and kind. And that in and of itself is an act of justice, when patience and kindness are in short supply. But patience and kindness are not love when they tolerate hate speech, or perpetuate blindness towards the needs of others.
Sometimes love is the opposite of envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. God knows there’s plenty of that in the world that we could do without. But sometimes love sounds boastful when congregations declare openly welcome for folks who identify as queer, or for those who experience homelessness.
And sometimes love even looks like anger, when folks have the same passion for those they have never met as they do for their own family. Love looks like anger because folks don’t always know what to do when our heart breaks for a stranger, when our rage about injustice looks wild and primal, and lacks politeness and respectability. But that is love.
Laws are pretty easy to follow, but getting to the heart of the law takes time. It takes practice. It takes listening to each other and being gracious with each other as we journey together. And this is why I Corinthians was written. Paul is telling the church in Corinth — the church that longed for the more public gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues — to see love over all the other spiritual gifts. Love is the greatest spiritual gift of them all. And love is the heart of community.
Love is more than following the rules, being polite, and appearing respectable. But the rules are often where we start. And as we together dig deeper and our love grows, so does our passion — our passion for God, for our neighbor and for our very lives. That loves fills our hearts and souls and minds, and causes us to act unruly, undignified and fierce.
May we all be filled with that passionate, unruly, fierce love as we journey together in the way of faith.
Amy Yoder McGloughlin is pastor of Germantown Mennonite Church in Philadelphia. This is adapted from a sermon she gave based on Matt. 22:34-46 and I Cor. 13:1-8 first posted on storiesfromtheredtent.com.