The ‘ahab Commandments – Sermon for Proper 25A, Pentecost 21 (October 29, 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service, RCL Proper 25A [Track 1], are Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6,13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; St. Matthew 22:34-46. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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A lawyer asked Jesus 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 neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”1

You’ve probably heard the old tale that “the Eskimo language has hundreds of words for snow.” If you research that, you’ll find it’s not true for the very basic reason that there is no single Eskimo language; there’s Inuit and Aleut and Yupik and Kalaallisut and Inuktitut and others and multiple dialects of all of them. In fact, there are eleven different languages spoken by the people grouped together under the title “Eskimos,” and most of them have up to thirty dialects. So, yeah, there are a lot of words for snow among the Eskimos in the same way there are a lot of words for snow among Europeans. (By the way, did you know that the native peoples of North America who live above the Arctic Circle don’t actually like to be called “Eskimos”? That is not a word in any of the languages; it’s an Algonquin word meaning “eaters of raw flesh” and they really don’t like it.)

However, as you research that old tale, you’ll also find out that there’s a bit of truth in it because some of the languages spoken by those Arctic Circle peoples do have many words for things that in English we might name with only one or a few. For example, linguist K. David Harrison, in his book The Last Speakers reports that the Yupik people of Alaska “identify and name at least 99 distinct sea ice formations.”2

The story of the number of words for snow in the Eskimo language (or languages) illustrates the idea that the more important something is to a society, the more words that society’s language will have for it. Drawing on this notion, contemporary British philosopher Roman Krznaric has lampooned contemporary society writing: “Today’s coffee culture has an incredibly sophisticated vocabulary. Do you want a cappuccino, an espresso, a skinny latte or maybe an iced caramel macchiato?” Krznaric then observes:

The ancient Greeks were just as sophisticated in the way they talked about love, recognizing six different varieties. They would have been shocked by our crudeness in using a single word both to whisper “l love you” over a candlelit meal and to casually sign an email “lots of love.”3

It’s not an entirely fair observation, I think; when one looks in the thesaurus, after all, there are at least thirteen strong synonyms for the word love, including affection, devotion, adoration, friendship, and the like. Still, Krznaric is right that we don’t use those words as often as we do the word love, nor do we use the word love with any sort of precision. I’m sure that every child here today has heard the schoolyard retort when someone says something like, “I love chocolate,” and another child responds, “Why don’t you marry it then?” It illustrates our lack of linguistic variety in respect to so important an idea as love, one that Jesus in today’s gospel lesson puts right at the center of our religion.

In today’s gospel reading, we have come to the end of this long series of challenges that first the Herodians and the Sadducees, the temple authorities, and then the Pharisees have put to Jesus as he has been teaching in the temple courtyard. First, they challenged his authority, in answer to which he challenged them about the baptism preached by his cousin John. Then he told them some parables about obedience to God and inclusion in the kingdom in which they saw themselves as the disobedient and the possible excluded. So they tried to trick him with a legal question about paying the Roman head tax, only to have him turn the tables on them (as he had earlier turned the tables of the animal merchants and the money-changers).

Now a Pharisaic theologian (that’s what Matthew means by called the questioner a “lawyer,” not that he was an attorney of some sort but that he was one learned in the content and application of the Jewish scriptures) questions him about the commandments, which is the greatest. Jesus answers in the best of rabbinic tradition: the first and greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor. Jesus does not, interestingly enough, refer to the Ten Commandments (which are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). Instead, Jesus goes, first, to the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy in which we find (in verse 4) the basic creed of Judaism, the Shema: “Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad” – Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. This is followed immediately by the words Jesus quotes in verse 5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Then he turns to Leviticus 19 which is part of what is known as the Holiness Code. This chapter specifically focuses on neighborliness and sets forth a bunch of common sense rules for living in community: when you harvest don’t strip your fields or your vineyards bare, leave some for the poor who live by gleaning; don’t defraud one another; don’t steal; don’t deprive an employee of his wages; don’t mistreat the deaf or the blind; don’t slander; don’t hold grudges or take vengeance. And, in verse 18, the words Jesus quotes: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So there it is at the heart of Judaism and, thus, at the heart of Christianity: love God, love your neighbor. What does it mean? Is this the sort of love we have for chocolate? Is this the love we carelessly attach to the end of a note or an email? Is this the love with which we propose marriage? Is this the love we hold for our children or our parents, our siblings or our best friend? Is it all of these or none of these? What is this love we are to have for God and our neighbor?

Like Greek, Hebrew has multiple words for love, but the word used in both verses quoted by Jesus is ‘ahab. This word connotes “a strong emotional attachment to and desire either to possess or to be in the presence of the object” according to one venerable lexicon. It can be used of the love between human beings, of human love for God, or of the human appetite for objects such as food, drink, sleep, or even wisdom.4 Thus, it is very much like the English word having multiple values and multiple meanings. It has been said that the ‘ahab commandments “call the faithful to imitate the character of Yahweh by treating others with extraordinary kindness, mercy, and love. Because the Creator is loving and just – defending orphans and widows, living the chosen people and the alien alike – the people of God are directed to do the same.”5

A modern rabbi, Will Herberg, wrote of the ‘ahab commandment in Leviticus:

This law of love requires that every [human being] be treated as a Thou, a person, an end in himself [or herself], never merely as a thing or a means to another’s end. When this demand is translated into laws and institutions under the conditions of human life in history, justice arises.6

When the Jews living outside of Israel translated their scriptures into Greek, they chose a particular one of those many Greek terms for love to translate this Hebrew word ‘ahab. They chose the word agape, and this is the word the gospel writers use whenever Jesus talks about love; it’s what Matthew used when reporting his answer to the lawyer in today’s gospel story. I could tell you, and I will, that agape connotes an unconditional love for all living things, that it is the type of love that gives one the desire to do good, but perhaps it is best to say what it isn’t by looking at those other types of love which the Greek language names differently.

So, philosopher Krznaric said there are six Greek words for love and while I am loath to disagree with an Oxford University professor, I will tell you that there are actually seven. The other six are these:

First, eros. You’ve all heard of eros; it is the root of the English word erotic. It refers the love between man and woman characterized by romance and sexual desire. Second, related to eros, is ludus. Basically, ludus is infatuation characterized by flirtation, playfulness, and a lack of commitment. Third, pragma. This is a love based on dedication to the greater good; it is the sort of love into which we hope married couples drawn together by eros will mature. Fourth is storge, that very special kind of love that a parent holds for a child; at its best, it is unconditional and sacrificial. Fifth is philia. This is the shared sense of warmth between siblings or close friends; at its best, it is characterized by sincerity and mutual benefit. And, finally, there is philautia, which is love of self. It can take the negative form of narcissism or the positive form of self-respect and self-esteem.

The love at the center of the Christian faith is none of these. What I hope you notice about all of these is that they are feelings. Agape, however, is not a feeling; it is not mushy emotion. The essence of agape is goodwill and benevolence. It is an act of the will characterized by faithfulness and commitment. Agape is a determined but joyful resolve to put the welfare of others above our own, and those “others” not limited to those of our own religion, community, or nation. As Jesus made clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan, our neighbors include those who are radically different from us.7 In the same way that the Hebrew ‘ahab embodies a call to justice, so to does the Greek agape: “It is not too much to say that because agape envisions a radically different way of relating to people across racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries, it serves justice implicitly, if not explicitly.”8

We may not have 99 words for snow, but somehow we know that there are different sorts of snow. We may not have (as The Scots Thesaurus claims the Scottish do) 218 different words to describe rain and fog. We don’t have single words to describe the six or seven variations of love that the Greeks had. But we do have a lot of words for coffee! If it’s true that the more important something is to a society, the more words it will have for that thing . . . then coffee must be more important to us than love . . . but I don’t really think it is. I do think, however, that the fact that we have so many words for coffee bears witness that we do know how to make distinctions in kind and quality.

So . . . when we hear the English-language version of Jesus quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus – “Love God. Love your neighbor.” – we need to exercise that faculty. He’s not telling us to be mushy and emotional. He’s telling us to exercise our wills and to act towards everyone with fairness and integrity. That doesn’t come naturally; we have to work at it.

At the center of our faith is not a bunch of creedal statements to which we must agree. At the center of our faith is not a book which we must memorize and revere. At the center of our faith is a relationship, a connection among all of us, a connection between each of us and God, a connection between each of us and our neighbor, a connection we have to work at and put effort into. The ‘ahab commandments, the agape commandments, the greatest commandments require us to ensure that that relationship embodies goodwill and benevolence, faithfulness and commitment, concern for the other, and – most of all – justice. And that’s a lot more important than an iced caramel macchiato. Amen.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 22:35-40 (Return to text)

[2] Quoted in Okrent, Arika, How Many Words Do Eskimos Really Have for Snow?, Mental Floss, January 25, 2013, online. (Return to text)

[3] Krznaric, Roman, Love?, Sojourners, December 5, 2013, online. (Return to text)

[4] Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN:1996. (Return to text)

[5] Tippens, Darryl L., “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”: The Pauline Tradition and “The Law of Christ”, in Agape, Justice, and Law, Cochran, Robert F., ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK:2017, page 38. (Return to text)

[6] Herberg, Will, Judaism and Modern Man, Farrar, Straus and Young, New York:1951, page 148. (Return to text)

[7] Luke 10:25-37 (Return to text)

[8] Tippens, op. cit., page 41. (Return to text)

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