Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hard Lessons

Readings for today:

AM:  Psalm 137:1-6 (7-9); Psalm 144
PM:   Psalm 104
Numbers 24:12-25
Romans 8:18-25
Matthew 22:34-40

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?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’  - Matthew 22:34-40 (NRSV)

I always enjoy meeting a special friend of mine for lunch. We usually do this a couple of times a year, once when she comes down for the winter, once before she leaves from the summer. We always meet at the same time and the same place, a restaurant about halfway between our respective houses, and all we have to set is a date. We have a really enjoyable lunch and look forward to the next visit.

I am chronically early for these appointments, partly because I am too anxious of being late to leave at the last minute only to arrive and find her waiting. The other part is that there are several large versions of favorite stores I have near me, stores with a much wider range of things that tempt me like sin. I have to confess, I increase their profits with each visit. This time, at the bookstore I visit on my rounds, I found a couple of treasures, one of which came in handy for considering the reading for today.

The passage above is pretty familiar to Episcopalians, at least to those who hear the Penitential Order (pages 319 and 351). It is a wonderful summation of not only the law and the teachings of the prophets but also those of Jesus himself, they are the keys to good relationships between humans and God and also humans and other humans. Love God, love neighbor as self -- it sounds so simple but, like many simple things, it is incredibly difficult to actually do.

There's a wonderful story which I had heard before but found again in the book I mentioned about a man who went to Rabbi Hillel and asked to become his student, that is, provided Hillel could teach him to recite the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary; go and learn." (115)*  That's it, short and sweet. Not surprisingly, as I also found in the book, other religions have similar injunctions:

Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.  -- Forty Hadith of an-Nawawi 13 (Islam).

One should not behave towards others in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality. All other activities are due to selfish desire. -- Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva 113.8 (Hinduism)

One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.  Yoruba Proverb, Nigeria (African Traditional Religions) *
I get the idea; the doing unto others is pretty much a world-wide tradition, so if that's the case, why is it so hard for us to do it? Why is it so hard for me to do it?

Loving God isn't hard, even though there are times when I wonder how God can allow atrocities and disasters. Still, like any love affair, the course never runs totally smoothly or easily. Anything gained too easily is never really appreciated, I have found. So if loving God isn't hard, why is it so hard to do what God wants?  I'm not talking about things like avoiding shellfish, not working on Sunday, not stealing or committing murder. I'm talking about the "love your neighbor" stuff. There are some people I just can't seem to love, even though I know I should: people who hurt kittens or who commit atrocities, people who take advantage of the poor or people who grab the best for themselves without caring that someone else might have to go without. Unfortunately, I also have to admit that I have trouble loving myself, simply because I know my flaws and know that I hurt other people, sometimes without thought and sometimes without meaning to do so.

Probably I need more applications of the Penitential Order, and perhaps I need to start poking myself with a sharp stick, just to remind myself what pain and failure to love can do. Perhaps standing on one foot several times a day might recall the lesson to mind, but somehow I wonder if I could remember to fit that into my schedule when I can't remember to take the medications upon which my health depends. So what am I to do? How can I accomplish the seemingly gigantic task of loving someone I find unlovable as much as I love myself?  Come to think of it, how much do I love myself? 

Perhaps I need to look at this a different way; maybe I need to think about not how much I love God but how much God loves me, flawed as I am. I also need to think about the unlovable ones in my life and remember that God loves them every bit as much as God loves me. Now there's a scary thought. What's even scarier is that God expects me to try to love them too.

Then I remember -- if it had been easy, there wouldn't have been a need for a cross, now would there?

*International Religious Foundation, World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, (1995 paperback ed.), Minneapolis: Paragon House Publishers, 114-115.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul </a> on Episcopal Café Saturday July 7, 2012, under the title "How Can I Love My Neighbor"

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