My family spends a lot of time at our family’s lake house, it’s an affordable escape to someplace beautiful. Its big enough to hold the whole family, parents, siblings, spouses, cousins, kids. The whole bunch of us can pack into that house and leave relatively unscathed when the weekend or vacation is over. A few years ago, we lost my wife’s grandmother, an amazing woman. She had been living full time at the lake house, in a small in-law style apartment, with a view of the lake to rival every other part of the house. It was only this past few months, since Covid started that my wife and I have taken to staying in that small apartment from time to time, on account of its added privacy, and the ability to add some social distance if others are around. It’s only been since we started staying in that space that I have had a chance to really look around in there. There are photos of family and family memories hung everywhere, trinkets and baubles that connect with some loved one, or the memory of the family heritage and history. But today I am reminded of one specific item, well technically two of the same item, one hanging on the wall directly across the room from the other if I recall correctly. The item is a framed portrait of Jesus, and despite being two different sizes, they are very much the same image.
The painting is called the “Head of Christ”, or the “Sallman Head,” and when I first noticed the twin images, which by the way I found another copy of in the upstairs of the main part of the house, when I first noticed the prevalence of that painting in that house I looked it up, I had seen it many times before then in other places, including several churches, and according to Wikipedia, the painting which was produced in 1940, had been reproduced over half a billion times by the end of 1999, that’s more than 500 million reproductions in 60 years, just for clarities sake that’s almost 23000 copies a day for 60 years… so it’s not surprising that Wikipedia includes a notation that this image is considered “the basis for the visualization of Jesus for hundreds of millions of people”… hmmmm
So how many of our understandings of Jesus, or at least his teachings come from this passage from the gospel of Matthew. For how many millions of people is this passage the basis for their understanding of Jesus message? I don’t know if there is a quote I have heard more in church than, “love your neighbor as yourself,” and that might account for why this passage is most often, in my limited experience, passed off as meaning “love everyone” or some variation on that theme. But maybe because of where I am in my life today, or maybe because I have come to think of Jesus in less binary, either/or ways, that understanding of this point fails to pass the test. Let’s start by putting this passage into context a little bit. These ideas are not new to Jesus, in fact they would have been very well known to the audience gathered round to hear him speak that day, they can be found in Gospel of Mark as well, but originate in the Book of Leviticus, a prominent part of the Jewish Torah. In their original setting, they instruct the Israelites not to hate or mistreat each other but to love one another. And I am sure that that remains a part of Jesus message for those he spoke to that day, but Jesus had a way of approaching peoples assumptions and understandings that turned them on their head, and exploded them out giving them a much different or in many cases much broader meaning. I don’t think this instance is any different. To see what I mean we have to go back a bit into Matthews gospel. Just within chapters 21 and 22 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus turns the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, literally flips them over sending coins in every direction, and he argues Law with other religious scholars and authorities. Jesus isn’t a lovey dovey, peace over conflict kind of teacher, he is a truth teller who isn’t afraid to point out hypocrisy, greed, or even complacency when it fails to meet gods expectations, and it fails to observe Gods laws.
This moment is not the only one in which Jesus addresses this idea of loving one’s neighbor, and when we consider the other example that comes to my mind, namely the parable of the Good Samaritan, we can begin to get an idea of how we might approach Jesus teachings. In that parable a man is beat up, robbed and left for dead on the side of a road, when a priest and a Levite walk by they cross to the other side of the road to avoid dealing with the injured man, but when a Samaritan walks by, he takes pity on the man, picks him up and brings him to the inn, where he pays for the man’s meals and board, promising to return and pay more if needed. This parable asks us to consider others, different from us, as neighbors, but more than that it asks, what if the other is our enemy, what if the other is not who we expect them to be, what if the other is not easy to love? According to Dr. Amy Jill Levine, when Jesus came around to describing the third man that would pass by the beaten man on the road, listeners were prepared by years of tradition to expect the hero to be an Israelite, but Jesus turns it around and I believe he is doing the same thing here in this morning’s passage from the gospel of Matthew. By acting out a pattern of subversion, resistance, and truth telling, all as means of achieving Justice, and then naming the law to love thy neighbor as yourself as the greatest, or at least on par with the greatest of the laws, Jesus is forcing us to reconsider our conception of Love. If nothing else, Jesus demonstrates that love is not a passive acceptance of another, or even a general concern for another, but an active advocation for another. It is not enough to feel for, care about, pity, or love another person, one must act intentionally from that love, even if that action is not the easy, obvious, safe action, but the difficult act, the insistent act, the Christian act of love.
I need to confess, I do kind of like that painting hanging in my family’s camp, but it is not the basis for the visualization of Jesus for me, it cannot be. It would be easier if it were, because it looks like me, pail skin, strait hair, the generally European features that my family and I share, but it does not truly ask the questions that it needs to. There is no discussion of middle eastern heritage in his face, there is no evidence of laboring in the sun on his cheeks, there is no pain carried beneath his eyes… when we consider Jesus and what he taught, we cannot take the easy answer, we cannot stop with the pleasing or the comfortable.
To paraphrase, Jesus said love God with all that you are, and love thy neighbor as yourself…what is he asking of you? Of us?