This morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew gives us that famous line present in some form or another in all three of the synoptic gospels, of the two greatest commandments – Love God with your whole self (heart, mind, and soul), and love your neighbor as yourself!
Author M. Scott Peck famously described love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.”
When my wife Erin and I were about to be married, this idea of love as a choice, an act of will, simple though it was, fascinated us. Peck had written elsewhere, “Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other but choose to live with each other.” Still kids at 21 and 22, grappling with growing and maturing out of the selfishness inherent to childhood, we nevertheless found this notion so compelling and a worthy challenge that we had it inscribed on the inside of our wedding bands – “Today I choose to love you.” a promise we covenanted to make real with each passing day, for the rest of our lives, that we would continue to choose love.
To be sure, simple as his definition is, there are times when looking at the world around us, it appears quite revolutionary. It seems a societal assumption that love involves some sort of falling, an involuntary, unavoidable, stumble. We swoon for the latest gadget because of how well-designed and cool it is. We lose ourselves in a good book, because we love it so. We wait to be wooed by leaders, and want to be amazed into falling for this or that new product or idea. Love, seen this way, is more like gravity or magnetism, even fate, than a decision or a choice.
But, we who have been blessed to know love, to experience it in action, who have had eyes to see, and hearts to comprehend love, know that it is and must always be a choice. Which is why love is both simultaneously excruciatingly beautiful and immensely difficult.
We see its beauty often in contrast to what it is not – which is to say we all know what it feels like to not be chosen. Each of us has experienced the sting of rejection in some form or another. We have seen too the grubby and repulsive face of hatred, greed, and indifference in our world all too often. And, so it is that the beauty of love shines out all the more against such a constant backdrop, like the flower growing through the cracks of a broken and potholed city street.
So too we know love is difficult because we know that choosing is often difficult. If choosing to extend ourselves for the purpose of nurturing spiritual growth personally or (even harder) for others, were easy, we know the world would not look as it so often does, broken by violence, marred by depression, bound by addiction, and often in despair.
Most of us are familiar at least in part with Dr. Bruce Alexander’s “Rat Park” experiment of the 1970’s that drastically shifted our understanding of how addiction works. Before Alexander the common scientific understanding of addiction linked to studies that showed rats, left alone in cages with two bottles of water, one normal and one dosed with cocaine, would invariably choose the water with cocaine over and over again until the drug broke both their bodies and their minds and they died of overdose. Addiction, scientists concluded, was a matter of biology and chemistry – left alone, we, like the rats in the cage, had no real choice because of how potent the drugs were and how our bodies are wired. Alexander hypothesized though that perhaps by maintaining the experiment but shifting the variable of the cage, we might see another outcome. He placed the rats in a home, dubbed “rat park”, where the rats were free to roam and be social with other rats, where they had access to other pleasures, food, play, sex, and a life full of color and comfort. They still had access to the two bottles of water, one normal and one laced, only now they never overdosed, and only rarely and intermittently drank from the laced water. His conclusion, now commonly accepted, is that addiction is deeply affected by the social context in which it occurs. That choosing health, choosing to grow spiritually, choosing to love, even ourselves, turning away from self destructive behavior and toward life, is made all the more difficult and challenging based on the context or container of life in which we find ourselves. This makes sense. And, it points to the truth that loving is not always easy, if loving implies choosing. Choice, it would seem, is conditioned.
When Jesus says that the two greatest commandments are love of God and loving our neighbors as ourselves, it might feel reductionist, and simplistic. There have been times when preachers, yours truly included, have taken this passage as permission to argue that the life of faith is simple, that despite all of the complex rules and structures, we really need only remember that Christian faith is all about love. Just love.
But, truth be told, love is not simple and it is not easy. For starters, to be able to choose love, as we have just seen, requires at least in part an understanding or experience of receiving love. For love to be possible, requires us to change the container. Jesus must have understood this. In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus is in the midst of a series of confrontations with the powers of his day, with Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, and now this lawyer. He is in the Temple, the location of the intersection of both religious and political power in his time, and he has just driven out the money changers, disrupting and passing judgement on a system that exploited and manipulated the poor. In short, as Jesus proclaims these two teachings as the structure upon which hang all other religious law and prophecy, he is keenly aware of the container he is standing in and how much it needs to change. These leaders are attempting to entrap him, to get him to either betray the laws of Caesar upon whom they depend to maintain their authority, or to betray the laws of faith which they have the power to enforce. And, Jesus’ response is a rebuke of the container that would force this false choice. Whatever would exploit the vulnerable, or depend upon the violent power of Empire, whatever would bend the knee to Caesar instead of extending a hand to those in need, whatever would keep us in a cage, separated from knowing love and being able to give love – this must go. Cornel West famously said that “justice is what love looks like in public” and Jesus’ words and actions in the Temple are a stark rebuke of injustice. Choosing to love God, depends on a community where we love each other. And loving each other depends upon knowing we are loved.
Love is a choice. But, it is a choice conditioned by the choices of so many others.
Right now our nation is in the midst of a choice, an election, and while candidates are always imperfect, part of what we are choosing, at least as people of faith, is how we can change the container to be one where love is possible. A society that can tolerate separating hundreds of migrant children from their parents, no matter how many blankets or toothbrushes they have, is not a society that favors love. A society where millions are denied access to the very basic necessities of healthcare, education, and a roof over their heads, is a container that does not nurture spiritual or human growth. A society that values profit and competition over sharing and cooperation, is a place that is actively resistant to the conditions that make experiencing and sharing love possible. For me, the choice is really easy this election. But, the work to reform and remake the container, to actively dismantle unjust systems, to make our society a place in which we know and experience love and find it easier and easier to share love with others, will need our daily choice and commitment, no matter what the outcome of the vote. We who have been washed in the waters of baptism, who have had the word of God’s love spoken over us, who have been immersed again and again in the self-giving, self-sacrificing love of Jesus, in this container, in the context of a faith community called and claimed by love – we must be unceasingly, daily, hour by hour, committed to choosing love. Which means we will need to practice the way of love – we must practice turning, learning, praying, worshipping, going, blessing, and resting – so that our life, and the life of our faith community, is conditioned to be a place where love is possible, where we are galvanized for the work of changing the wider container of society, resisting injustice, until the whole world sees, knows, and is able to receive the Love of God, which has been given to all of us. Upon this hangs all the rest – love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Choose love! Amen