“’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 neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
We have finally arrived. We have reached the summit. What else is there to say? In these few words, Jesus has summarized his teaching. Jesus has spoken the last words. He should need to talk about the issue of how we are to treat one another. I believe that these words about loving God and everyone else is the reason why Jesus came, to show us the way of love.
This has been a difficult week. On Wednesday, a gunman walked into two places where people had gathered to have a good time. He began to randomly shoot people, leaving 18 dead and countless numbers wounded. The fighting continues in the Middle East with no end in sight. This fighting has caused a ripple effect worldwide as people choose sides. And let us not forget the war is still raging in Ukraine. This has been a difficult week.
All these things have been in our thoughts and prayers, as hollow as that sounds. We are trying, in our own way, to make sense of it all when Jesus comes along and commands that we love everyone, and my response is, Sure, Jesus, but I am a little short on love right now.
On April 16, 2007, 32 people were killed at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. In the aftermath of that shooting, I was sent along with several other clergy to the school to offer what support we might be able to bring. We spent the day walking around campus, talking to people, and giving out free hugs. This community was in pain, and they were trying to come to grips with how they felt.
On the common space in the center of campus, a makeshift memorial had been set up. A circle of candles had been constructed with the names of each of those who lost their lives. People would come by, pause for a moment or two at a name or names, maybe leave flowers or some other token, and then move on. Although 32 students had been killed, there were 33 candles and names. The 33rd candle was for the shooter.
This angered some people, and for a brief period, that candle was removed. But it was returned with a note which read, “33 are gone because one was lost.” It was an amazing sight to see. Amid this community’s pain and anger, they did not forget that the person who caused that pain and anger was a human being with a family who loved him, whose life also came to a tragic end.
On Friday night, news broke that the shooter in Maine had been found dead in the woods not far from the place where he worked. You could almost feel the sense of relief when it was announced, and the residents of the communities affected breathed a sigh of relief. The governor broke the news that the gunman was dead, and the threat was over. But that was not the end.
As usually happens at these press conferences, various officials spoke about the events that led up to the finding of the shooter’s body in the woods. But the most poignant words were spoken by the Maine Public Safety Commissioner. He talked about calling the families of those who had been killed to give them the news that the person responsible had been found.
Then, in what was a surprising move, he spoke about the family of the man who caused all this pain and anger. He said that he had also spoken with them because they had also lost someone they loved. He made no excuses for what happened, nor did he try to explain it away; he simply treated the family with respect, informing them that their loved one had been found.
I know that will not be popular with some, just as the memorial to the shooter at Virginia Tech was not popular. Still, sometimes, we have to do what is right rather than what is popular—remembering that the perpetrator, regardless of how heinous the act committed was, had a family that loved him is how we can show love. There will be plenty of time for blame and recriminations, but for now, let us remember that families are grieving and trying to figure it all out.
I cannot emphasize enough how radical these words of Jesus were. Since Moses carried the stone tablets off the mountain, humanity has been guided by the Ten Commandments of God. These 10 were the basis of all the other laws, and then along came Jesus, who changed the focus. Jesus is asking us, no, Jesus is commanding us to shift the focus from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law.
The most revolutionary part of what Jesus commanded was not that he called us to love everyone but that there were no exceptions to that love. Love God, love neighbor was all he said. The only condition Jesus added was that we are to love everyone as we love ourselves. There is no room to say, but they… Nope, we are to love everyone just as we love ourselves.
Commenting on the tragedy in Maine, the new Speaker of the House commented that it’s not guns but rather the human heart that is the problem. I would agree to a point. Yes, it is the human heart, the heart, that is hardened to the problem of mental health in this country. The human heart that is hardened to the problem we have with easily accessible weapons designed for no other purpose than to kill. A heart that has become so hard to children dying that we are paralyzed and feel there is nothing we can do. So yes, Mr. Speaker, the problem is partly with the human heart.
This love Jesus speaks of requires us to show care and concern for others. We do not have to excuse anyone, even the shooter, for the things that they have done, but we do have to love them and show concern for them.
I am confident that over the next few weeks and months, we will hear stories about the shooter and the signs that he may or may not have exhibited. There will be all sorts of blame and finger-pointing; it has already begun.
If we truly love our neighbor, we will not point fingers but find solutions. Pointing fingers is easy; finding solutions requires lots of hard work, and that work begins inside each of us.
This command, and let us not forget this, is a command of Jesus: to love everyone is not easy. Loving everyone is, in my mind, the most challenging part of being a Christian. So important is this message that Jesus was willing to die for it. Make no mistake, what killed Jesus was his radical call for inclusion and a change in the way we treat one another.
Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, sums up the teachings of Jesus with these few words, “The way of Jesus is the way of love, and the way of love will change the world.” Let us strive to bring that love out into the world every day.