Proper 25a – Sunday 23rd October 2011
Matthew 22: 15-22
One of the most fascinating stories I heard last week was about the creation of the High Line Park in New York. Originally built in 1929 to take trains and freight off the city streets, the line – which ran in the lower west side of Manhattan – became redundant in 1980 and had since lain in a state of dereliction. Wild grasses, trees and shrubs took over the line, and only a few people ever ventured on it. It was the subject of a demolition order at one point, which was successfully contested through the courts.
In 1999 the Friends of the High Line was formed by two local residents Joshua David and Robert Hammond, who campaigned for the Line’s conservation and reuse as public open space. Funding was slowly acquired and a complete redevelopment begun. In 2009 the first section of the park was opened, and earlier this year another part was unveiled to great acclaim. As well as an oasis of peace and calm, the park has cultural attractions too, with frequent art exhibitions and concerts.
The High Line today is unrecognisable from the initial concept, and yet it still stands on the original foundations. Without the 80 year old steel and concrete structure there would be no park.
Jesus made exactly the same point. The Pharisees came looking for another opportunity to trip him up and catch him out. They thought Jesus was proclaiming some sort of radical new alternative lifestyle and fused religion, and they wanted him to be shown up for the charlatan he was.
“Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” they asked.
Everything that Jesus stood for the foundation remained constant. He was building on the groundwork that God had put in place – an antiquated version of the High Line Project. And at the heart of his faith lay two of the basic tenets of what our faith must be about.
Now I do like the King James translation of these two commandments:
‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’
But The Message takes it to another level:
Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ This is the most important, the first on any list.
But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.”
With all your passion and prayer and intelligence. What a wonderful phrase. Are you giving your all? At work. At home. Do you give it 100%? When you play tennis do you throw yourself around like Roger Federer? When you take part in amateur dramatics do you give a rendition as good as Hugh Jackman? Do your photographs display the contrast and texture of Ansel Adams? And does your love of God match the intensity of Jesus? Does it display passion and prayer and intelligence?
The whole of our lives must be rooted in love and devotion and service to God, in praise of his Holy name. But that needs a practical outflowing, and that is why the 2nd commandment is alongside it.
It all begs the question, “How much do you love yourself?” Well, actually it doesn’t. Our love for our neighbour, our love for others must be as total as our love for God. Sometimes we have a right downer on ourselves, so that must never be the measuring stick for our love for others. Instead, our love for others must be as strong as our love for God, and we need to keep telling ourselves to love ourselves the same amount despite all our failings.
Of course, these commandments then raise the most difficult questions imaginable for human society. How can we go to war if we love our neighbour? How can we neglect those who live in poverty and squalor? How can babies die across continents throughout the world because they lack a 30p vaccination?
But isn’t that what faith is all about? It’s supposed to be a struggle. It’s supposed to challenge our comfort and ease. It’s supposed to be the narrow road. It’s designed for us to use all our passion and prayer and intelligence in loving God, loving others and loving self.
That’s what makes it so dynamic, so exciting and so refreshing. Be changed. Be transformed. Be radicalised. But discover the foundations are still the same: Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.