Lev 19: 1-2, 15-18. Mt 22: 34 – 46.
Last after Trinity Yr A 2017
Within the last 60 years or so there have been three great Methodist ministers: great preachers who could fill / and overfill the biggest chapels. They were Drs Sangster, Weatherhead, and Soper. It is said of them that Dr Sangster loved God / Dr Weatherhead loved humanity and Lord Soper loved an argument.
I can testify to the last – because years ago when I was in the City many a time and oft I would stray onto Tower Hill on a Wednesday lunchtime to see the great Lord Soper on his box preaching – or more precisely haranguing the mammon-loving unbelievers – or so it seemed to me at the time.
These descriptions of variously loving God humanity – and an argument are of course gross over-simplifications like all shorthand attempts to categorise people. But as Scripture testifies there are and always will be people who find it easier to love the neighbour they can see rather than the God they can’t. And there are others for whom the opposite is true. We can love God – who is MILES away rather than the neighbour who’s TV we can hear all too clearly next door.
In today’s readings we are treated not only to Jesus teaching on the greatest law of all that of love but we are also given in our first reading from Leviticus the Old Testament source for his teaching. It was a source that would have been familiar to his audience who according to the Gospel we read were lawyers and scribes as well as Pharisees. In Luke’s gospel this teaching leads straight into the famous “who is my neighbour” question which in turn gives us the even more famous Parable of the Good Samaritan.
The chapter from Leviticus from which our reading today came is a remarkable rich seam of Old Testament ethics. It is a source from which all sorts of other books in the Bible expand their teaching. The laws of which we heard some / are further expanded in Deuteronomy. They are echoed in the Psalms, in the Book of Proverbs and in the various prophets both major and minor. This chapter also expands all of the Ten Commandments which we find in the book Exodus.
It finds echoes in the Letter of James. The very end of this passage also condenses the Commandments into what Jesus called the second great commandment and what Paul regarded as the very essence of the Law – to love thy neighbour as thyself.
In an age when communications and social media make the world into an ever-smaller place the question “Who is my neighbour?” – and the injunction to love one’s neighbour assume ever more pressing proportions.
But among all these biblical riches I would like to focus on what is so often overlooked in the teaching laid down in Jewish law in Leviticus and by Jesus: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. We tend to gloss over the “as yourself” bit. And we ought not to do so.
Love of God, love of neighbour and love of self are not alternatives – if you can have three alternatives. The commands to love God and love our neighbour are distinct – but equally mandatory. We know that because Jesus tells us in our passage from Matthew.
But what of the third member of this trio – love of self? After all it is assumed to be the model of the way in which we should love our neighbour – as ourselves. If we don’t love and respect our selves it is going to be difficult to love anyone else, neighbour or not. Over the centuries this “love of self” has proved to be a bit of a minefield. Love of self has been seen as a corrosive force that defeats both love of God and love of neighbour.
We live in self-obsessed times when the cult of the individual is king – and our desires are there to be gratified preferably before we know we’ve got them. A crude reading of St Paul and St John has misled generations into indiscriminate condemnation of self – and of self-hatred. Our humanity has over the centuries been chastened denied and sacrificed rather than celebrated. But the self that is to be loved is NOT the self that we show to the outside world. It is not the public self that we feel obliged to adopt in order to win the acceptance or the love of others. THAT is the false self / the interloper. And the bigger the space that we make for this false self the more we concentrate on burnishing or manicuring this false image the Facebook etc image the less space there will be for the real self which is there for us to cherish and which is the true self that God so loves.
That is part of the deep unhappiness of so many who are in the public eye and who feel they must fuel the public’s expectations and fantasies. It is what is so damaging about the cult of celebrity not only for the “celebrities” themselves – but also for those who worship and adore and seek to copy them. Thus they find themselves in clinics for abuse of alcohol / or drugs / or for treatment for anorexia / bulimia or clinical depression. These poor people have squeezed their real self out like toothpaste from the tube and there is nothing left.
The less we love ourselves the more our love for others will be distorted a bit like looking at the world through the wrong prescription glasses. The more true our view of ourselves the better our prescription is so to speak and the easier it will be to see the world clearly, in the right way. God’s vision is perfect. God sees us as we truly are.
The great psychologist Carl Gustav Jung the son, incidentally, of a Pastor and himself originally destined for the Church once said the following:
That I feed the hungry, that I forgive the insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ, all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do to the least of my brethren that I do to Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars…. is within me and that I myself am the enemy that must be loved – what then?
There is a real self within us waiting to be loved and cherished. This self is the imprint of God’s own self within us, the reflection of God in our deepest being. Love of our true self cannot contradict our love for God because it is part of God’s own creation. We love God by loving our true self within his creation. After all we cannot give ourselves in love either to God or neighbour until we have discovered a true self to give. If we fail to love ourselves then our relationships with all around us will be distorted – as with the wrong glasses prescription – because the relationships will be skewed to try to provide our own unmet needs.
By the way -if all this sounds high-fallutin’ sociological claptrap – blame it on the fact that I’m a spiritual director who was married to a counsellor and former social worker and whose son is a clinical psychologist.
The false self has to go before the true self can be discerned.
But the treatment for doing away with the false self, that is to say by means of self-denial and / or self-sacrifice, which so many have tried over the centuries often suffocates the true self along with the false one. The baby goes out with the bathwater. The problem is – how do we love our true self into health and vitality? How do we discover that we are truly made in the image and likeness of God and are loved by God as part of creation?
It is sometimes said that until we experience God’s love for us we cannot properly love ourselves. The dilemma is that until we love ourselves we may find it impossible to accept that God loves us. We can’t properly love others until we love ourselves but we need to experience the love of others before we can love them – or ourselves. As the Thomas More character says in “A Man for All Seasons” –I trust I make myself obscure.
It is a conundrum. Another writer – I forget who –put it well when he wrote that the key that unlocks the safe is in the safe. But the door that is locked against logic can be opened by another strategy – and one that transcends logic / namely relationships inspired by the Holy Spirit. The true self is conceived and kept in being through relationships especially with God – however one might conceive that Being. The false self is false because it is closed to true relationships. It is self-centred and self-serving.
Falling in love, discovering a close relationship with God, forming a close relationship with another person // these things cast out fear and make it safe for the real self to be brought into life and love. Friendship, counselling sometimes therapy, spiritual direction, however it is called – these things may help uncover the closed-in areas of our lives and find that pearl of infinite value that is within us and which, like the grit in the oyster, may have been born of pain. There were occasions on my Camino when I found myself on the cusp between spiritual direction and counselling people of different nationalities who had issues in these area.
Leviticus and Our Lord require us to love God. We cannot do this simply by loving our neighbour. But by loving God we engage with a network of love that pushes outward from ourselves – because it can do no other. We WANT to give – as we just have with the food to FEED here in St Albans at the Vineyard – and where / following the trailblazing of Jim and Alison Mann a number of St Michael’s folk now volunteer.
Proper love and respect of self frees us from self-preoccupation because we truly know ourselves. It frees us to reach out and greet the world in love and thereby to change it to try to make it a better place. Proper self love frees us to love our neighbour and to love God with God’s own love that we discern within us.
Love of self, love of neighbour, love of God. It is an unbroken three-fold cord with which we can embrace our fractured love-starved world. For: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord. AMEN.