When I told an agnostic friend of mine that I went to Church, she said, there’s a lot of good in Christianity. It has a good set of ethics; it’s a good guide to life. My heart sort of dropped. For me it’s a bit more than that. But what she was referring to was the second commandment in today’s gospel reading: the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Earlier in Matthews gospel is the Golden rule: do to others as you would have them do to you. It is a universal aspiration to do this. There is also the one that Carl Sagan calls the silver rule: don’t do to others what you would not want them to do to you. This is the rule of non-violence Ghandi lived by.
The Golden rule is hard and as Carl Sagan says almost no-one follows it. My agnostic friend told me she thinks Christians aren’t particularly good at following this guide to a good life. My response to her was: no. I agree. I don’t. I have a tendency to be more focused on me and what I need than I am on loving my neighbour. I think this is part of being human; it’s an inclination which comes from the instinct to survive. Without wanting to sound dualistic, I think we need to be aware of this egoic side of ourselves; this tendency to focus on our own needs; to act defensively; trying to protect ourselves. I expect it will look a bit different for each of us. In order to love our neighbour we have first go beyond this limiting self.
Love; its so clichéd. I looked it up and the Greek word ‘love’ used in these commandments is a verb of agape and in the context of the second commandment. It means acting for the other person’s good; consistently. It’s not dependent on whether or not we think they are worthy. In the eyes of God everyone has worth. Everyone is to receive the same care and attention. St Augustine was keen to include care for ourselves in this act of love. But many would say this refers to a sacrificial care. I’m inclined to agree with St Augustine. We have to be able to care about and for ourselves, so that we can care for another. It’s like that oxygen demonstration in the plane: put the mask on yourself so that you will be able to put it on your children. We need to breathe in God’s care for us, care for ourselves, and in light of that, we can care for each other.
This is where I expect the commandment to care for each other is slightly different for me than it is for my agnostic friend. My motivation and sense of how it all works is a bit different. It’s a difference of awareness and orientation. It’s linked to the first commandment: to love God with all our being. I want to say that this isn’t quite right. It’s a bit back to front. It’s more to do with being open to the love of God and abiding in that love. So in a way the commandment could be better understood as: be open to my love; move in it; live in it, and then you will see it; you will know that everyone is loved, so you, we, need to try and do that too.
The meaning of ‘love’ here, the verb of agape again, is in preferring God; doing the will of God. Our goal is to look for what seems right for each of us; look with that inner wisdom; take risks and listen in the quiet. Living from this dimension all this is possible.
Commentators on this passage say the list, the first and second commandment, isn’t hierarchical, it’s just a list. They go together. So we are being commanded equally, to love God and each other. It’s a tall order. Rowan Williams has said that the way we know about God’s love is in the life of Jesus, of course. But also for us here and now, how we love another is an example of God’s love. That is our work. Nothing like a bit of pressure.
A few days ago I visited a friend of mine. She is almost blind, and a bit hard of hearing; she’s ninety four. She told me she spends a lot of her time meditating; time with God. When I knock and tell her I am here, her face lights up and she holds out her hands as though my visit is the best thing. She does that for everyone who comes to see her. She asks how things are for me and she is specific – she seems to know what’s important to me. I feel that she cares. If you met her she might seem very ordinary, until you get to know her. Then you can see the divine in her.
The challenge then is to be aware of that part of us which focuses on our needs; our stuff; and work at not speaking or acting from our ego. If we allow ourselves to speak from there it has an effect; whether it comes out as sarcasm or a criticism; it can hurt another person. We don’t want that. We want to practice being non-violent.
We want to move beyond and practice caring; to try to do it consciously. Perhaps just once a day be kind to someone nearby; and build up to caring for those who irritate us. It’s not in the big gestures; it’s in the small steps. And we want to be honest. I am not there yet.
And of course we need to practice being open to God’s love. Because that’s where it all comes from. We need to be conscious of that care. Tune in; listen at the deepest part of ourselves; where to next; and lean into what seems right. Respond.
These two commandments are about what’s possible for us as human beings; human beings with potential for growth in divinity.
 Carl Sagan, The Rules of the Game. http://www.freeonlineinformation.com/rulesofthegame.htm Accessed 24th Oct 2014.
 Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust; An Introduction to Christian Belief. (London: Canterbury Press Norwich, 2007)