I recognize Isaac the moment he gets off the elevator. He’s an elderly gentleman, his head wrapped in a scarf, a painted branch as a walking stick in his hand. With a hint of awe in his voice, he says the same thing he said the first time he visited: “I didn’t know this office was here.” I wonder if he may suffer from dementia.
He walks up to the Front Desk, rifles through a bag, then shoves some papers at me. “I want to talk to M. She told me to come.”
Isaac has driven up from Tacoma because he believes he’s delivering a requested document to M, but M doesn’t work for my company. She actually works for a competitor in Tacoma. I wrangle her phone number from Isaac. When I call her, she says: “As you can see, Isaac isn’t the easiest to communicate with. He used to be your client. I guess that’s why he must have shown up at your office. Listen, Isaac doesn’t have access to a fax or a computer. Can you do me a favor? Email me a copy of the document. Will you do that for me?”
After I fax the document, Isaac pulls me aside to talk. He’s clearly troubled. The recent appearance of this document could ruin his life.
I can’t follow all the details of his story, but from what I can gather, Isaac is retired. An immigrant from the Middle East, he lives on $600 a month. The document is a home violation notice from the City of Tacoma. He’s okay with paying a $150 fine, but what’s this $7000 repair bill for something that isn’t his fault? “It’s harassment”, he says.
He may be right. What is happening is that he is being marginalized, dismissed, and brushed aside. His outrage and confusion are justified.
Six days later, Isaac is back at the Front Desk. He still has a scarf wrapped around his head, but the walking stick is gone. A new company, a different company, has requested that he fax the document to them. When Isaac tells me this, I am overcome with the sensation that we are suddenly characters in a Kafka novel. Angry at the dehumanizing situation, I immediately imagine the people working at those companies and mentally accuse them of not doing their jobs. I mean, really, how did this become my job?
Jesus would say it’s my job. In fact, in today’s gospel reading, he does: love God and love your neighbor. This verse is so familiar to us that I wonder if it hasn’t lost some meaning, if maybe we don’t take it for granted.
If we were to be asked by someone what God’s number one commandment is, most of us probably would answer “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But that’s not how Jesus answers the question. Jesus says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” In other words, love God with your entire being. That’s the greatest commandment. Then Jesus adds “A second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself”.
Things that are like something else are not the same as the thing they are like. A student may be like a teacher, but they are not the teacher. A child may be like a parent, but they are not the parent. Loving your neighbor is a worthy and noble pursuit, no doubt, but it’s not the same thing as loving God. I know many atheists who love their neighbors as themselves, sometimes even better than we Christians do.
So why does Jesus put loving God before loving our neighbor? In order to answer the question, it might be a good idea to revisit last week’s gospel.
You’ll recall that Jesus was asked a question about taxes: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Instead of falling into their trap, Jesus asks them to bring him a coin. Since the coin bears Caesar’s image, he proclaims: Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.
When asked later that day (remember, this all happens on the same day!): When asked later that day which is the greatest commandment, Jesus seems to take the opportunity to continue the conversation about taxes. To love God above all else means giving to God the things that are God’s: our heart, our soul, our mind. These are God’s because God created us. We are the coins that bear God’s image. We are imperfect images, true, but images of God nonetheless.
The only human being who is the perfect image of God is Jesus the Messiah. As the Son of God, Jesus reveals to us the true nature of God. As the New Testament theologian and apostle John writes: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God, and the one who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” By God’s grace, we have within ourselves the very essence of God. God is love. Love is our true self.
And yet, we don’t always live up to our true selves, do we? Since we are imperfect images of God, our love is also imperfect. Sometimes, our love attaches to earthly things, such as our political or religious convictions, our knowledge, our youth, our wealth, our creativity, even love itself. When our love for created things is greater than our love for God the Creator, it is no longer a God-centered love that reflects the love of God, but instead becomes a pleasure-centered love that distorts the love of God, much the same way that funhouse mirrors distort the proportions of the human body.
This is why Jesus places the commandment to love God before the commandment to love our neighbors. By making our goal in life our love for God, we can minimize distorted, pleasure-centered love and begin to see ourselves more clearly, bringing us into greater alignment with our true selves. Loving our neighbor, then, flows naturally out of our love for God.
Often, the kind of love that manifests between ordinary human beings is a mutually beneficial arrangement: I love you and I expect the same thing in return. This is usually what we mean when we say someone is a friend.
But Jesus challenges us to move beyond our cultural norms: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?...But love your enemies, do good…expecting nothing in return…you will be children of the Most High; for God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as God is merciful.” In the Kingdom of God, everyone is worthy of love, mercy and respect. Jesus challenges us to let down our defenses, dissolve our boundaries, and become vulnerable with each other. In return, Jesus promises to bring us into the kingdom of God and give us life in all its fullness.
When Isaac came back to fax that document a second time, he happened to come at the worst time of the day. We were having a company meeting and 250 people were crammed in the lunch room just off the Front Desk. I groaned when I saw him. My defenses were up. I wanted to get him out of the building as quickly as possible. I was angry at the forces that were making an old man travel from Tacoma to Seattle only to fax something back to Tacoma.
My defenses melted when I looked into Isaac’s eyes. His eyes were full of gratitude and hope. Isaac had returned because he believed I was the only person who could help him. He had faith in me. He believed that I would get his document to the right person, and maybe, just maybe, the issue would be resolved and he wouldn’t be ruined. I felt ashamed that I thought it wasn’t my job to help him.
After we were finished, I walked Isaac to the elevator. As we said goodbye, I reached out my hand for a farewell shake, but he was holding a glass of water, so he extended his other hand, palm down, and placed it in mine. We stood there for a few moments, holding hands. Then Isaac bowed to me. I returned the bow. It reminded me of the bows we make during the Eucharist, when the altar party and the people bow in acknowledgement of the Christ within each other. In that moment, love prevailed. In that bow, God was with us. In that elevator lobby, we were just two people holding hands, but we were standing in the Kingdom of God, just as Jesus promised.