Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Reading Matthew 22: 34-46
Imagine you’re living in Amsterdam in, say, 1942 – so under Nazi occupation. A few moments ago, an out-of-breath young man – let’s say, in a red shirt – knocked on your door and asked to be let in. You let him in. He then tells you he’s Jewish and is being chased by the police. You tell him to go and hide in the attic.
You realise that the police are knocking on all the doors in your street. They knock on your door and they ask if you’ve seen a young man in a red shirt in the last ten minutes or so.
You know, obviously, with absolute certainty that you’ve seen him. You tell a lie. No, I haven’t seen anyone, you say – as confidently as you can manage. The policemen go away, at least for now.
Honesty is usually regarded as a virtue but I think that most people would agree that, in the circumstances I have just described, it would not have been virtuous to have told the truth.
I’ve taken as my subject this morning virtue and my contention is that a quality that a person possesses can only be called – really and absolutely – a virtue if it can be considered desirable in all circumstances and at all times.
And perhaps I should make it clear that I’m talking primarily about virtue as demonstrated – or not – in our relations with other human beings.
So honesty, if I’m right, doesn’t fit the bill when it is claimed to be a virtue. Honesty may almost always be desirable but it isn’t always. It cannot therefore be considered a virtue in the fullest sense.
Let’s take a look at what is often considered the supreme modern virtue – tolerance.
Imagine that you’re walking down the street and you see and hear a man verbally abusing a young child who has, it seems, caused him some minor inconvenience. He raises his fist as though to strike the child. Should you tolerate the man’s behaviour or just walk by on the other side?
The answer is obvious, from which we can conclude that tolerance too isn’t a virtue in the sense that I have described.
Again, tolerance may often, usually, almost invariably be a good thing but not always.
You could take almost any quality that is sometimes taken to be a virtue and imagine a circumstance in which it would not be virtuous to put that apparent virtue into practice. Let’s call these virtues semi-virtues. They have some validity but not an absolute one.
So, is there a quality that a person might possess that is always good – in all circumstances and at all times? Is there an absolute virtue?
Well, I think there is and there’s a clue in our gospel reading. Well, it’s more than a clue. It’s as plain as the proverbial pikestaff. Jesus tells us that the two greatest commandments are to love God with all our heart, soul and mind – and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Love is that elusive, supreme virtue that is valid in all circumstances and in all places.
It’s clear from the whole of the New Testament that when Jesus says ‘neighbour’, he means everyone – the stranger, the foreigner, the person who is different from us as well the person who is similar to us.
You may have noticed that, life being what it is and we being what we are, love often proves to be beyond us but to love is what we are commanded to do. And love is a doing word. Love without action is a contradiction in terms.
I can’t conceive of any circumstance in which love would not be the absolutely optimum quality to have – supported, as appropriate, by those semi-virtues that I mentioned earlier: honesty, tolerance and so on.
Now, we are sometimes told by linguistic nationalists that English is the richest of all languages because it has such an immense vocabulary. The Oxford English Dictionary has 273,000 words. That’s undoubtedly a lot of words but there is one area at least in which our language is distinctly impoverished.
Our word ‘love’ is used to cover several really quite distinct things. Greek, the language of the New Testament, has several words for love, the main ones being: eros meaning sexual, romantic love; philia meaning the love existing between friends; storge meaning the love existing between family members; and agape meaning active good-will or benevolence.
Agape – or rather the verb deriving from it – is the word that Jesus uses in our gospel. He expands its reach so that this active goodwill, this benevolence extends to all people. In Christian understanding agape became an intense, universal benevolence that wishes good for others and is prepared to do what it takes to bring it about. So the element of self-sacrifice became embedded in our understanding of agape – based entirely on the teaching and the life of Jesus. Agape became the form of love most characteristic of the Christian life.
That doesn’t mean that eros, philia and storge are bad. After all, where would we be without them? In their own way and in their own proper context they are good but they lack the universality that the Christian sense of the word agape possesses.
One last point. In the Christian tradition there are three so-called theological virtues – faith, hope and love. I have contended that love – agape – is the only true virtue, so you may be wondering where faith and hope fit into all this?
Firstly, these are theological virtues – virtues in our religious life – and not moral virtues. Love has the characteristic of being a theological and a moral virtue.
But, more importantly, in the fullness of time, when we have come fully and consciously into the presence of God, we won’t need faith and hope.
Faith will no longer be needed because God’s reality will be fully present to us.
Hope will no longer be needed because our hope will have been infinitely fulfilled.
Love alone – agape – will remain, refined within us beyond our imagining. We will have joined the eternal exchange of love within the Trinity. Love is the one virtue that is valid in all circumstances and at all times – in our present reality and in eternity. For the Christian it becomes more than a virtue, far more than a virtue. It becomes the essence of existence.