None of us can love another to the fulfillment of the law. We owe our neighbors love. And we are all in debt. Through the grace of God, we are forgiven, and we are deeply loved and capable of loving.
Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
13th Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 23 A
Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” What an amazing statement Paul makes in his letter to the Romans! Take all of the law encompassed in the Old Testament, and it can be fulfilled by simply loving one another. Rather than attending to what can seem to be an endless list of rules, we can trust that if we love our neighbor, we are doing God’s will, because as Paul says a few verses later, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” For those of us who can get bogged down in details, this is truly liberating. The only thing we need to do is love one another.
It is not always as simple as it seems, however. In the time of Jesus, faithful Jewish leaders debated hard and long about the statement “Love your neighbor,” asking who their neighbor was. Jesus was part of these faithful discussions, and as we have seen time and time again, Jesus often presents us with a challenge to view things from a different perspective. During one such conversation, Jesus shared the parable of the Good Samaritan, which forced his listeners to see the Samaritan, a hated enemy of mainline Jewish people, as the neighbor who saved them from the ditch. Jesus calls us not only to love, but to love without distinction.
The question of who we should consider to be our neighbor, who is worthy of our love, is still debated today, and the truth is we are often, without realizing it, tempted to draw a line defining who is and who is not our neighbor. Many Israelis and Palestinians would not include each other in their definition of neighbor. Many in the United States wrestle with how to respond to our neighbors from the south who come to this country illegally out of desperation. Police officers and community leaders of Ferguson, Missouri, are separated by thick walls of hate, and fear. Closer to home, we may find it hard to see as neighbor the person who brings violence to our community, the fellow church member whose political beliefs seem to go against our core values, even the family member with whom we have never been able to get along.
This call to love one another in fulfillment of the law doesn’t sound so simple when we understand that Paul was talking about loving those that are difficult to love. In Matthew, Jesus says that if a neighbor who has sinned against us will not listen even to the church, we are to consider them to be a tax collector or Gentile. This text has often been used to justify shunning or excommunicating someone who doesn’t measure up to standard, but if we are to understand what Jesus is really saying here, we need to remember that, far from separating himself from tax collectors and Gentiles, Jesus often found himself the center of attention for doing precisely the opposite. Jesus talked with them, listened to them, ate with them. Jesus loved them as they were, and called them to the fullness of life.
We are called to love not only when it is convenient for us, not only when our neighbor is someone we like and approve of, but to love everyone we meet, without condition. We are called to love the person who cuts us off in rush hour traffic, the person who brings a cart with 20 items into the checkout lane clearly marked “12 Items or Less,” the family next door who turns up their music at 10 p.m. Even more unthinkable, perhaps, we are called to love those who have hurt us—those by whom we feel betrayed, or misunderstood, or abused, even in those circumstances where, for the safety and health of ourselves and our family, we need to maintain boundaries and distance to prevent additional physical and emotional harm. Love one another. What does that look like? Is it even possible?
The truth is, if our one primary directive, the fulfillment of all the law and commands of God, is to love one another, to owe no one anything but love, we all fall short. None of us can love another to the fulfillment of the law. And yet, there it is. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” We owe our neighbors love. And we are all in debt.
We see evidence in the readings from Ezekiel and the Gospel of Matthew that God understands our plight, knows our indebtedness. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus offers a guide for how to handle directly, and with respect and dignity, the conflict that inevitably arises among humans who struggle to love one another. In the verses immediately following this passage, Jesus tells his disciples that we are to forgive “seventy times seven times” when our neighbor asks forgiveness. When—not if—we fail to love, Ezekiel tells us we are to invite each other back to God, and remind ourselves of who we are called to be. God says to Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live.” We are all in debt. And the God of love knows this, and promises forgiveness, and life, no matter how far we fall.
And it is precisely where we fall that God steps in. When North Minneapolis resident Mary Johnson’s son Laramiun was shot by Oshea Israel, another teenager in the neighborhood, in 1993, forgiveness and love was the last thing on their mind. In an interview with People magazine in 2011, Mary and Oshea shared their experience. Mary said, “At the trial I hated Oshea. I thought he was an animal and deserved to be caged. I was so angry when the judge charged him with second degree murder, instead of first degree.” For his part, Oshea felt that Laramiun was to blame for the shooting, and that if Mary had raised him better the conflict that led to Laramiun’s death and Oshea’s imprisonment would not have happened. As time went on, Mary’s anger and depression and grief led her to become a recluse, and ultimately she knew she needed God’s help to forgive the man who had killed her son. After 12 long years, and countless hours of tears and prayer, Mary visited Oshea in prison, and as they shared their pain with each other, God transformed them, and love and forgiveness became possible in the midst of anger and grief. Mary founded From Death to Life, a program that offers hope and reconciliation to others who have lost children to violence through support groups, prayer walks, and community gatherings that celebrate life and forgiveness. Oshea was paroled in 2010, and today, Mary and Oshea live next door to each other, and share their story of healing from podiums and pulpits around the world, offering hope to many who have experienced the same grief. Oshea, having recognized his own guilt and responsibility for Laramiun’s death, said, “I caused her pain, but we are loving our way through it.”  It is precisely where we fall that God steps in.
This is a dramatic example that may seem out of reach, but it is no less miraculous when a man extends forgiveness to the one who abused him, a minister offers care and love to the young church member who accidently hit him with her car in the church parking lot, or a daughter reaches out to the parent from whom she has been estranged. We fall, and God steps in. For us as humans, on our own, loving to the fulfillment of the law is not possible, but with God miracles of love and healing are possible, and they happen every day. Where can God’s love work in and through you to heal brokenness in your life, your family, your community?
It is the love of God revealed in Jesus that redeems us from our debt. The love of God in Jesus enables us to love our neighbors, even when it is difficult. God’s love in Jesus empowers us to care for and protect ourselves and our families in a spirit of love. And when we fail, as we humans will, Jesus’ love for us gives us the grace to offer forgiveness when others hurt us, and the grace to receive forgiveness when we hurt others. We are all in debt, but through the grace of God, we are forgiven, and we are deeply loved and capable of loving.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” God calls us to fulfill the law by living in God’s love today, for we are redeemed by God’s love for each of us, today and every day.
 Margaret Nelson Brinkhaus and Lorenzo Benet. “How I Forgave My Son’s Murderer.” People Magazine, September 12, 2011, 84-86.