One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
I’m going to guess that I’m not alone when I say that the past two weeks have been difficult to process. Last week, in particular, was marred by numerous acts of violence. It started last Wednesday, when 10 pipe bombs were sent to prominent politicians, journalists and activists. Then there was an unprovoked shooting of a black man and woman at a grocery store in Kentucky— which some of you may not have even heard about, because it got overshadowed by the horror of what came next— the massacre of eleven children of God— eleven beautiful and loving souls— at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
I don’t know about any of you, but even though we mentioned the shooting in our prayers last week, I had barely even begun to process the news when we gathered for worship last Sunday. Later that day, however, I gathered with clergy colleagues to talk about planning a community vigil, and that’s when the flood gates opened for me. I went home after that planning meeting Sunday night and I cried, and I cried, and I cried. I cried because there just seemed to be so much hate in the world, so many senseless acts of violence. And then, as can often happen when contemplating the meaning of these events, my tears began to burn hot with anger. I became angry at our leaders, who fail to see that their vitriol and toxic rhetoric might in some way be inciting this violence. I became angry at people in my life who refuse to examine ways in which we might be complicit. I became angry at the perpetrators of violence themselves. How dare they take the lives of these innocents. One woman was a holocaust survivor for God’s sake, part of a community helping to resettle refugees. I was so angry that so much hate could be directed at a community that was so committed to love. And I regret to say to you that on that night, I went to bed angry, and with no small amount of hate in my own heart. It wasn’t my finest moment.
But I woke up on Monday morning, and knowing I had a busy week ahead, I decided to get a head start on my sermon preparations. And as I read through this morning’s text— one so familiar it can almost feel mundane— a simple realization began to form in the back of my mind— one that helped me let go of some of that toxic anger and lead me back to a place of relative peace. I’ll get to that realization in a moment. But first, let’s lean in and take a closer look at the text itself.
So we know this text, right? As Jesus and his disciples continue on the road to Jerusalem, they encounter a scribe who asks Jesus about the greatest commandment. Jesus gives the expected answer, beginning with what is known in the Jewish community as the shema— “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This was, and remains today, the foundational prayer of the Jewish faith. It also happens to be a very old prayer. It is such an old prayer, in fact, that it pre-dates the Jewish religion— at least the more institutional form of Judaism that we are familiar with. This prayer dates back to the days when the Jewish religion was little more than a scattering of loosely affiliated nomadic tribes. And at that time, this prayer was the one thing that tied them all together. This prayer was the way in which a bunch of loosely affiliated tribes began to develop a sense of identity in something greater than themselves and their individual tribes.
So that’s the first part of Jesus’ answer. He then goes on to talk about the second great commandment, which he says is like the first, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now, we Christians sometimes like to claim this commandment as our own. But we can’t forget that this commandment also dates back to the earliest days of the Jewish faith. It first appears in the book of Leviticus, the Jewish book of religious law. And I think it’s worth mentioning here the context in which the law first appears. It shows up in Leviticus 19, after a series of commands mainly having to do with the just and compassionate treatment of the poor. Starting with verse nine, the text reads, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner…You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him… You shall do no injustice in court… You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
There is a sense here that when the Israelites are commanded to love their neighbors as themselves, they are to pay special attention to their neighbors who are poor or oppressed, remembering that they too were once poor and enslaved in Egypt. They too were once refugees and aliens in a foreign land and it was precisely that experience that formed the basis of their law.
Now so far, I suspect this is all sounding somewhat familiar to many of us. Love God, love neighbor, we’ve all heard this sermon before. But what really got me thinking this week was the part of the equation that we don’t talk about as much— the third love that Jesus mentions—and yes, Jesus does mention a third kind of love. You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.
We think about the great love commandment as having two parts. Love God. Love neighbor. But really, there is a third love here, and that is self-love. And I’m gonna argue this morning, that that’s actually a pretty central part of the equation.
Maybe that sounds a little weird. But let’s be clear— I’m not talking about a narcissistic kind of self-love. I’m not talking about a love of self that puts one’s own ego before the needs of others,
or a love of self that is built on the basis of putting others down. I’m talking about the kind of self-love that is radical self-acceptance— acknowledgement of our own intrinsic goodness and understanding of our own inherent belovedness. We were created in the image of a good and loving God. Therefore, we too, are good. We too, are worthy of love. We were worthy the day that God created us, just as we are, and we don’t need to do or achieve anything more than simply to be who God created us to be. That, in and of itself, makes us perfectly, intrinsically, and inherently loveable.
That’s the kind of self-love I’m talking about. And I think it’s more important than we often give it credit for. Because here’s the thing, we can’t actually love others as ourselves if we don’t actually love ourselves to begin with, right? It seems so perfectly logical. If we hate ourselves, or judge ourselves, or feel shame about ourselves, how is it possible to love others as we love ourselves? If we hate ourselves, don’t we often try and protect ourselves by then projecting that hate, or that judgment, or that shame, or whatever it is, away from us and onto others?
And it’s not just love of neighbor that gets all messed up when we feel hate or shame about ourselves. How can we love God— how can we love our creator— if we hate or disparage who God created us to be? If we don’t accept ourselves as God created us to be, somewhere deep inside then, are we not a little angry at God? Do we not on some deeply buried level even hate God? We have to love ourselves first. It’s the only way to make the whole equation work.
So now to bring things back around to how I was feeling at the beginning of this week. I mentioned that I was feeling angry. I was feeling angry at how some people can be so full of hate. But then I realized something. The people who perpetrated those acts of violence— the pipe bombs, the shooting in Kentucky, the massacre at the temple— people who perpetrate any act of hate or violence— they don’t know themselves as beloved. They don’t know, they don’t understand, that they are worthy of love and acceptance. Their sense of love for themselves, if it is there at all, is so precarious, so fragile, that the only way they know to protect it is to keep others from having it too. They don’t understand that there is enough to go around. They don’t understand that love is a renewable resource. They are scared there won’t be enough. They are scared that they aren’t enough. They can’t love others in the way Jesus commands because they don’t have enough love for themselves.
And so with this realization— which I should add isn’t really a new realization, but more like a remembering of wisdom that is very, very old— I felt the anger within me began to drain away. It began to drain away and was replaced with compassion and mercy. Because how terrible it must be to be filled with so much hate or shame for one’s self. I wondered, if the shooter from the Tree of Life had only known himself to be beloved—just as beloved as the Jews he targeted— just as beloved as the Muslims they were helping—if he had only known himself to be just as beloved and precious as them, might he have been able to love them instead of hating and resenting them? Maybe. I don’t know.
But then something else dawned on me. The part of the love commandment that isunique to Jesus. We don’t hear it here in this passage, but we hear it in the sermon on the mount. “You have heard it said,” Jesus says, “to love your neighbor… but I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
We all like to think that we have a pretty good idea of who our enemies are. Maybe some of us disagree about who some of them are, but probably all of us agree to some extent that our enemies are those who would do us harm. We would all probably agree that among our enemies are those who would perpetrate acts of violence, like killing eleven souls in a synagogue. And Jesus tells us that not only are we to pray for such enemies, but we are to love them.
It occurred to me this week, that maybe one reason Jesus calls us to love our enemies is to help them understand that they are indeed lovable, so that maybe they can begin to love themselves.
We’ve been talking lately about being reflectors of God’s love— that we know ourselves to be loved by God because others reflect that love back to us, and we are called to do the same. Well what if we could be mirrors for those who struggle to love themselves? And what if instead of reflecting back anger at them, which only reinforces their belief that they are in fact, not worthy of love, what if we could reflect back to them an image of someone who is immensely lovable,even in their brokenness? Maybe even especially in their brokenness.
Make no mistake, friends, this is really, really hard. To prove just how hard this is, I want you all to take a moment to think of someone who you find impossible to love. I know we can all do it. That’s not the hard part. Picture this person in your mind. Close your eyes if you want to. Imagine standing in front of them. And imagine not saying a single word to them, but rather, simply reflecting back to them how lovable they are. Imagine reflecting back to them, how good, and beautiful, and precious they are.
Now, I’ll be honest with you all— for me, and for the person I imagine in this scenario, this does not feel possible. But we all know what Jesus says about impossible things, right? “For mortals it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible.” With God, we can do this hard thing. And I’ll tell you what helps me. The person that I’m imagining has inflicted a lot of pain on a lot of people, both through their words and through their actions. But it helps me feel compassion towards this person, and maybe even take a step towards loving them, if I think of them, not primarily as someone who inflicts pain on others, but rather, as someone who may be in a great deal of pain themselves. Maybe it’s a start anyway.
Now of course there’s a whole other layer to this which I haven’t even begun to talk about. And that is of course, that for every person who can’t love themselves, who then projects their hatred violently upon others, there are hundreds, if not thousands more individuals who end up turning their hatred inward upon themselves. To feel that oneself is not worthy of love is one of the worst forms of spiritual and emotional pain. And to dull that pain people will do just about anything. Some turn to self-harm. Some turn to drugs or alcohol. Some turn to more permanent solutions. And I know I’m running out of time this morning, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the time to say one last thing.
I know it’s not realistic to suggest that we just have to love people more and they will stop hurting themselves. I know it’s not that simple. But speaking as someone who sometimes has a hard time loving myself, I know we can at least do better. We can be better, clearer mirrors for those who struggle to love themselves. And you know how we do that? We start by loving ourselves. And maybe that’s it— maybe we need to stop trying so hard to love others into who we want them to be and focus instead on loving ourselves more fully. Because the more we can love ourselves—truly love ourselves, in a radical, self-acceptance, sort of way— the clearer our own mirror becomes, and the better others will be able to see their own reflections as beautiful, beloved children of God.
And so maybe the most important thing I can say here this morning is for anyone who is here in this room right now who doesn’t believe they are worthy of love, or who struggles to accept themselves as immensely lovable, just as they are. To that person I say— you are loved. I love you. We love you. God loves you. Let there be love. Amen.