A new teaching: love
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The people were astounded by Jesus. For he taught and acted as one with authority – not as one with institutional authority, like the scribes – but real authority. He had something to say that was simple and true, and so they listened to him. He demonstrated what he taught by how he lived, and so they followed him. Jesus had no need to demand respect; instead, he attracted it. That’s real authority.
After Jesus spoke in the synagogue on the sabbath, the people of Capernaum asked “What is this? A new teaching!” I wonder what, for them, really was new about what Jesus taught. One way of approaching this is to start with what the “old teachings” of their day were.
If the people in Jesus’ day wanted to know how to best live a good life, they had two main pathways that their culture offered to them. One was the Jewish way of the law. The other was the Greek way of knowledge.
The way of the law is what Jews had been steeped in for centuries. We heard about it in the Hebrew scripture appointed for today, from Deuteronomy. Moses summoned all the people and told them that they would be accountable for whether they listened to and obeyed the word of the Lord as spoken by the prophet. The consequences were life and death, reward and punishment.
The path of law, obedience, punishment, and reward is very much alive today. Parts of every religion, secular nations, even families hold out this promise and threat: obey and you will receive our blessing; disobey and you will be condemned. The way of the law instills fear; it makes us watch over our shoulder constantly. We look anxiously for our parent’s approval, for God’s displeasure, for our boss’ favor, to answer the question “Am I measuring up to the expectations of authority?” Usually the answer is “No,” and so we continue to vainly strive after the mirage that is always out on the horizon. We’re never good enough; as St. Paul said, the law brings death.
The way of knowledge is what the Greeks brought to the world of Jesus and everywhere else they conquered. It was so influential that it dominated a whole section of late Hebrew scriptures called the Wisdom writings: some of the Psalms, the Proverbs, and other books. In this tradition, the answer to the question “How shall a righteous one live well?” is “by rational wisdom, by reason.”
This path is also very much alive today. Some believe that if we could just do enough research, we could fix this old world and all the people in it. If people would just be rational, they would behave. If I could figure out the source of my problems, I’d be happy. There are some very popular forms of spirituality - modern-day Gnostics – that believe that peace of mind and harmony in the world will come if we raise our consciousness, transcend delusion, and think the right thoughts. But as St. Paul said to the Greeks around him in our second reading today, “knowledge puffs up.” Knowledge alone can be a puffed-up bubble – a neat little world in our minds where everything makes sense, but having little effect on life itself. I’ve known some supposedly enlightened spiritual teachers with pretty serious personal problems.
So this was the context of Jesus’ world. These were the available pathways into a good life. Everyone in Jesus’ world was very familiar with these old teachings. Jesus came along with a new teaching that astounded his audience and attracted enormous respect. People left their livelihoods, their life-long habits of mind and style of life, and they followed him. They were even willing to die for what they learned. What it that so affected them?
It was love. The path to a good life was not to be found in measuring up to the demands of an external authority. It was not to be found in gaining right understanding. The path to a good life is found in loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving ourselves. We are saved when we are able to receive and to give love: saved from unhappiness, from fear, from isolation, from all our hurts and all our shortcomings. We are set free when we receive and we give love. This was the radical new message that astounded the people. This is what Jesus taught and this is how he lived.
In our gospel today - on that day in the synagogue in Capernaum, when he was teaching - Jesus was approached by a man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. Today we would call him mentally ill. He suffered terribly, as all who are mentally ill do. What did Jesus do?
He didn’t blame the man for his problems, telling him that he would be healed if he would end his wicked ways and start behaving himself. Neither did Jesus say that his disease was the result of delusion, and attempt to enlighten him on the true nature of his existence.
Jesus reached out to him, touched him, and loved him, this broken and confused man. Jesus had no intellectual insight to offer, no demands to make. All he had was kindness, mercy, and the desire to free. He reached into this poor man’s heart and silenced all that was not love, and cast it out.
In the church, we talk a lot about loving God, and about God’s love for us, but this is not always so easy to live into. What is it to love God? If it is not to fearfully be on our best behavior, if it is not to seek an enlightened mind, what is it?
Well, like any love, it is a relationship. When we love God, we pour out our hearts, we express our needs, we watch for God’s coming. We place our trust in God, we offer our day, our intentions, our life and we say sincerely “Your will be done, your kingdom come, right here on earth.” We sing and we pray with open-hearted devotion, calling upon God as we would call for a lover. We may rarely feel an obvious sense of God’s presence in response, but that doesn’t matter. In loving God, it is the outpouring that matters.
We also say that God loves us. This is not some kind of thought that we convince ourselves of. It is instead a sense of well-being, of being at home in our own skin. It may be the same thing as loving ourselves.
Love of self is not a selfish thing – “Aren’t I wonderful?” – but an appreciation for who we are, just as we appreciate a young child for who they are. We see our uniqueness, our distinct imperfections, our looks and our personality, our gifts and our limitations, and we feel at home, not wishing we were somehow an essentially different kind of person.
We take care of ourselves because this gift of life is precious and fleeting, and it is a wonder to live it. We also feel safe enough to not have to be defended all the time, and we have the capacity to take a hard look at ourselves and change. This, I believe, is accepting God’s love for us, and it saves us. It sets us free to be who we are, to live as God intended us to live.
Jesus also said that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This means that we see the other in this same light, appreciating them for who they are: not wishing they were an essentially different kind of person, but looking for their inherent, God-given goodness, their uniqueness, their gifts and even their limitations. Appreciating the other is like seeing a really good actor in a movie or play. We may not like them, we may not approve of things they do, but we appreciate the unique beauty of who they are.
This is saving too. For when we love others for who they are, they can settle into their own skin and be at home. Around us, they may feel safe enough to see their faults and then change.
There will always be a need for the law. We will always need ethical and legal standards, expectations of right conduct, and consequences for misbehavior. Understanding, too, is a good thing. Wisdom and science help us live better lives. But neither the law nor understanding will save us. Love alone does that.
After all, Jesus told us that this is the summary of all the teachings of their religious tradition. It is the one teaching, the ancient and eternally new teaching that always astonishes us with its simplicity, truth, and power: Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.