Back when I was a young Christian, our Bible Study leader did something I will never forget. She told us to take 1 Corinthians 13 and substitute our name every time the word “love” appeared. So I took out my Bible and began the list: “David is patient; David is kind; David is not envious, or boastful or arrogant or rude.”
Suddenly, I began to break out in a sweat: “Do I really have to do this? I thought I was pretty good at loving my neighbor. But now…I’m not so sure about it.”
Reluctantly, I continued: “David does not insist on his own way (Oh, my goodness!) but rejoices in the truth. David bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
I didn’t need to go any further. As far as I was concerned I had failed the love challenge. In every instance where I subtitled my name for the word “love,” I could think of a situation where I failed to measure up to this high standard. Apparently, I had a lot of work to do when it came to love. And THIS was the point my Bible Study leader was trying to make.
When asked “Which commandment in the law is greatest?” Jesus responded, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets.” [Mt 22:37-40]
When we hear these noble commandments, our natural instinct is to pat ourselves on the back and think we’re doing really well with our ability to love. But the truth of the matter is that love is a work in progress. It’s something we have to keep cultivating and expanding so that our love is a large as Jesus’ love for us.
If we think this is an easy task, we are deluding ourselves because we’ve all been less than patient and kind. We’ve all been envious, boastful, arrogant and rude more times than we care to admit. Loving God and and loving our neighbor, is something we have to work on ALL THE TIME. The reason for this is that Jesus wants our love to grow deeper and deeper. He constantly invites us to expand love’s boundaries so that the list of those whom we call our neighbor grows larger and larger.
This is why it amazes me that 1 Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings. When we hear it in this context, it sounds like a beautiful thing to say to a couple on their wedding day. But I hope my Bible Study leader’s exercise helps us to see that this well-known text is more challenging than we can possibly imagine. It calls us to love large, to love without limits. And if we think that Jesus wants us to do anything less than this, we aren’t paying attention to what he taught from the beginning of his ministry.
In last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus gave us his job description. He went to the synagogue in Nazareth, unrolled the Torah scroll of Isaiah, and said, “The Spirit of God is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [Lk 4:18-19]
The people from his hometown who heard this got all excited. They thought Jesus was talking about them. They thought they would be liberated from their poverty and bondage. It was as if they were listening to 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding. It was received as good news. It made them feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. In fact, Luke says “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
But Jesus intended to challenge them with his reading from Isaiah, as well as comfort them. This is abundantly clear in our gospel lesson. The good news Jesus was proclaiming, the year of the Lord’s favor he was announcing, was being offered to everyone. It was not an exclusive invitation to the residents of Nazareth. Jesus was expanding the boundaries of God’s blessing and favor, in a way that didn’t sit well with his hometown folk.
He spoke of God’s love and blessing being extended to a widow at Zaraphath in Sidon, which means that she was not Jewish. She was a Gentile, a foreigner. Then he spoke of God’s love and blessing being extended to Naaman the Syrian, which means Naaman was also not Jewish. He was a Gentile, a foreigner. In both of these instances, God blessed someone his audience would have thought did not deserve God’s blessing.
Not surprisingly, the people who spoke well of Jesus had an immediate change of attitude toward this Good News Jesus was preaching about. Luke says, “All in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
Wow! Apparently they weren’t willing to extend God’s love and blessing to anyone outside of their tribe. It was fine if Jesus was bringing Good News to poor Jews, but poor Gentiles was another matter altogether. They were not willing to expand the boundaries of those they saw as their neighbor. Their love was very small, while Jesus’ love was very large.
This is not the only occasion in the gospel of Luke where Jesus loved large. He would call Matthew the tax collector to be one of his disciples. [Lk 5:27-28] He would challenge the crowd to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those abuse you. [Lk 6:27-28]
He would heal a Centurion’s servant, a Roman soldier who would have been seen as an occupier and an oppressor. [Lk 7:1-10] He would feed five thousand people without exceptions or exclusions. [Lk 9:10-17] He would tell the parable of the Good Samaritan where a Gentile was seen as the perfect example of how we love our neighbor. [Lk 10:25-37]
We know the consequences of loving this large. Jesus was seen as a threat, an enemy of both church and state. He would be tried, tortured an crucified. He would be placed in a stone tomb with a large boulder sealing its entrance. His oppressors thought this would put an end to all this foolishness of loving large. But we know that Jesus rose from the grave, and his presence is still experienced among us now.
Jesus is still loving large, forgiving those who don’t deserve to be forgiven, and bringing new life to hearts we thought were cold and dead. This is the Jesus who embodies the noble qualities of love, we find in 1 Corinthians 13. This is the Jesus who keeps challenging us to cultivate and expand the boundaries of our love so that it is as big and inclusive as his.
Friends, we live in era where hate rules the day, where people have circled the wagons around who they think is worthy of love. This causes them to be judgmental, hostile, and suspicious of anyone who looks or thinks differently than they do. May this not be true of us! May we refuse to be envious, boastful, arrogant and rude. May we allow Jesus to cultivate in us a love that is expansive as his; a love that is patient and kind, a love that stretches and grows until we see everyone around us as our neighbor who is worthy of God’s blessing and favor. Amen.
Copyright ©2019 by David Eck.