Love God, Love People, Nothing Else Matters

So reads a phrase on the many battered T-shirts stacked up in the back of my closest. I just don’t have the heart to discard them – those old shirts contain so many beautiful memories of my summers serving the children and families of north Philadelphia over twenty years ago.

The phrase above became the motto for a little outfit with which I served back then. Eventually that little group evolved into a bustling organization. The phrase on the shirt was lifted from the words of Jesus responding to the Pharisees’s trap question (another of the many “un-beautiful” questions that were referred to in last week’s Word from Below). Jesus responds:

“‘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.”
Matthew 22:37-40

Sitting here in Guatemala City, this week’s lectionary text enters a very personal space for me. Over the past few weeks my inbox has filled with concerns and questions from others regarding the life trajectory of a friend connected to those 20-year-old memories – a friend who has been one of the chief inspirations helping to put me unto the trajectory that my own life has followed. A friendship, by the way, that continues to inspire and encourage.

As I try to remain emotionally present to the many unanswered questions swirling around the issues, I feel compelled by the text in front of me to consider anew the words that jumped off the T-shirts and perforated my heart two decades ago:

“Love God, Love People, Nothing Else Matters.”

Is that really true? Is this statement about love in two directions all that really matters?

For my part, I guess some could say that it’s just a blind allegiance to a kind of nostalgia that keeps my closest full of unworn, tattered T-shirts bearing catchy sayings. However, what about for he who uttered these words in the first place? Was there something far more foundational, revolutionary, and practical that roots his response in an earth-shaking exclamation – in the face of which “Nothing Else Matters?” Could it not be argued decisively that the church today has tweaked the statement to read: “Love God, Love People and a whole lot of other stuff also matters.”

If Jesus’s words to the Pharisees meant anything then, they mean no less today. They even take on further texture if we see the words through the lens of the expanded definition of “neighbor” revealed by the parable of the Good Samaritan. An additional layer comes from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44).

The big surprise for the Pharisees comes with the addition of this second commandment – “love your neighbor” – that Jesus says is equally important as the first. The Pharisees had definitely not asked for two. It is this second that made them squirm, because they had organized themselves around a love for themselves more than their “neighbors.” In fact, they assumed superiority to their neighbors and certainly felt superior to those stinkin’ Sadducees that Jesus had just finished shutting up in the previous verses.

I see far more of my current self than I’d like to admit in the Pharisees of this story. Why, like them, have I allowed so many other things to “matter” more than the cruciform-shaped dimensions of love? Why do I allow my pride, reputation, success, and comfort to matter more than love? What was it (in relationship with either friend or foe) that the younger version of the person wearing those T-shirts 20 years ago understood, that this older version seems to have forgotten?

Perhaps a righteous Christian life is not one that obeys the law of God impeccably, but a life that loves relentlessly. Love, Jesus tells us, is the way to unplug from the cage of violence and rivalry that the teachers of the law are trying to lock him – and all of us – up inside.

Maybe Jesus is again giving permission to take to heart the greatest gift of God in this life – to continually and repeatedly and relentlessly embrace the ones we love while extending the goodwill of heart, soul, and mind to all the world – even, or maybe especially, to those who seem furthest away.

Joel Van Dyke
Street Psalms
Latin America

P.S. For those among our readers who remember being in high school in the late 70s and early 80s and need to laugh: please consider taking a peek at the memories from the pop culture of my youth that surfaced for me in my mind’s eye while working on this reflection.

Perhaps motivational speaker Bill Murray has something to say to us about what does or just does not matter in relationship to what we typically find so important in life.

Or perhaps Steve Martin wasn’t such a “jerk” after all with this parody on life about all that’s really needed.