Because as Colin Morris once pointed out, “love is the sub text in virtually every sermon”, it is easy to miss the novelty of Jesus’ famous summary of the law as being boiled down to two love-centred commandments. Perhaps however it might be worth a second glance at some facets of these two diamonds which Jesus puts at the centre of his teaching.
Certainly there is nothing intrinsically new about these two particular Commandments (or for that matter even unique to Christianity). Both appear for example in the Old Testament in several equivalent forms. When Jesus is quoted as saying the Lord our God is one Lord , and you must Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and your whole soul and your whole mind and your whole strength – he was clearly repeating the first part of what the Jews called the Shema. This was a quotation from Deuteronomy 6: 4 from the beginning of the key passages from scripture chosen to be contained in the phylacteries – the little leather boxes to be strapped on to the forehead and on the wrist when the devout Jew was at prayer. The Shema was also placed in a small cylindrical box called the Mezuzah which was – and in fact often still is placed particularly on the front door and sometimes on every door in a Jewish house to remind the Jew of their God every time they pass through that door.
That the Shema is central to the expression of Jewish faith is well known. The Shema was on the Jews’ lips as they passed through the doors of the Nazi Crematoria in the holocaust, as it had been as their ancestors faced persecution, torture and the stake across Europe in earlier generations.
I admit that just because we find this in Deuteronomy we should not assume that therefore it must be good. Deuteronomy may well have had a place for reminding Jews that they were people of a faith, but we would do well to remember that in part it was a faith for a different age and a different setting.
Certainly there is the magnificent statement about whole hearted love for God, yet in other places Deuteronomy takes us to dark and disturbing places. There for example you would find very un-Christian suggested actions to take against anyone who changes their faith (Deuteronomy 6:13), or who suffered injury to their private parts(23:1), or if you had the misfortune to be born a Girgashite (7:1-6).
But this is not to say the Deuteronomy has nothing else to offer. Jesus is reported as being able to find verses from Deuteronomy to ward off temptation (Matthew4: 1-11). In other places Deuteronomy is far in advance of its time in expressions for compassion for animals (22:1-4,6-7) and in its compassion for the poor (24:10-22)
While it may be easy to accept that there is the commandment about loving God it is not quite so clear from Deuteronomy or even from Jesus’ rephrase exactly how Jesus’ listeners were expected to go about showing their love for this God. Given that elsewhere Jesus is dismissive of those who profess faith with their words yet whose actions are apparently more about preserving image and being self serving, it is for example hard to believe Jesus intends us to show our love merely by repetitions of phrases like “we worship you” or “Your name be praised”. In one sense, Jesus’ immediate shift to the second commandment reminds us that there is a whole life attitude required.
If God is creator, then we surely we must show a response by caring about this creation in our actions…which we do how?
If we love a God of Love – then surely what is most required is that we respond with actions that reflect this love. And if you don’t mind my asking… do we? In other words if the poor and the disadvantaged and dispossessed who have encountered our Church – encountered us as we are in our actions – were to be asked? Would they describe us as those who clearly love our neighbours?
Colin Morris in his Things Shaken, Things Unshaken addresses that question of where this teaching fits today.
“What relevance”, he asks “can that bald cliché, God is love, have to the hectic world of politics and international relations? –
Then he answers:
“Well, the root of many of society’s problems is to be found not in technical, political and economic issues but in a lack of trust and mutual respect between its members. It is easy to look at others without actually seeing them. We see a stereotype shaped by our prejudices and ignorance. Love gives us the power of imagination to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see how our actions look from the other side of the tracks, South of the equator or on the wrong side of the breadline.”
When Jesus coupled the first Commandment with the second Commandment – this time from Leviticus Chapter 19 verse 18 ; “You shall love your neighbour as yourself “– there was however a subtle reinterpretation with the way Jesus used the Leviticus quote. This is because when the words had originally been recorded by the writer of Leviticus, the reference to neighbours was specifically intended as an attitude to community neighbours, or if you like, fellow Jews. Much of the early codifying of law was about strengthening and supporting the Jewish community – and as part of this strengthening – was to separate those who did not belong. In fact some of the other laws again in those early books of the Bible, showed that it was not only permissible but positively encouraged to show dislike for those outside the community. For example some of the scriptures took positive delight in the destruction of rivals. The importance of love for one’s fellow Jews was placed alongside strictures like classing eating with Egyptians as an abomination, recognising those with slanted eyes as cursed, and calling for the wholesale slaughter of opponents as in Psalm 137 where verse 9 reads: “ Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock” .
Jesus took an entirely different line. Jesus not only showed by word and action that he intended neighbours to be interpreted more widely, in other places showing loving one’s neighbours included loving even those with other beliefs – like his parable of the Good Samaritan and his encounter with the woman at the well. Again his examples showed he was not just calling for words but love expressed in action.
Perhaps we need to guard against assuming that Christianity has sole rights to this as a philosophy.
I rather like the Greek attitude expressed by the mathematical genius and philosopher Pythagorus who in answer to the question “Who is your neighbour?” replied, “Your other I” Treating the other as being equally deserving of your attention as yourself is of course what Jesus was saying in Love your neighbour as yourself.
While it is easy to think of love in the abstract, in practice of course it is incredibly difficult to love those we get closest to. Right through the Bible there are stories of sibling rivalry, jealousies over imagined and sometime real unequal treatment, difficulties in trying to forgive rivals and just plain dislike of those who have different gifts or backgrounds. Has much changed over the centuries? As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once put it: “What is it that God asks of us? It is simply that we make an effort to be loving to one another, even when we do not feel like loving”.
In practice – and I guess it is because as we become closer to others they get to know our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, we sometimes find ourselves growing impatient to the point where our emotions get the better of us. This even applies to those who are married. If marriage depended on the day-to-day continued good feelings about one’s partner, I suspect there are very few marriages that would survive. As for our enemies…..? What is this about loving our enemies? Love? We, don’t even like them.
But listen again more carefully. Nowhere in the Bible does it say we have to like our enemy – or like our neighbour. You see, we may not have much control over our feelings, particularly when we feel resentful. A poorly functioning liver can be enough to make us irritable. When we are tired, we get less patient. But any or all of these feelings can be set aside when, as an act of will-power, we deliberately set out to act lovingly.
Even Pauls famous “Love is…” list in first Corinthians Chapter 13 is not a list of feelings , it is a list of actions of the will.
Love is patient…..this means act patiently
Love is kind …. do acts of kindness
Love keeps no score of wrongs……put the wrongs out of our minds, not because we are trying to feel the love, but rather because we know which actions are loving.
It is not enough to expect to feel that the difficult workmate is really like your brother or sister, and if you are waiting for that feeling, I have news for you. It may be a long wait. But if you are going to treat your workmate as a sister or brother this will change the relationship.
One of the sad things in the modern world is that the word Justice has become corrupted to mean retribution. Because of the resentment this sets in train, retribution rarely seems to bring about an improvement. When the Bible talks of justice it is far more concerned with distributive justice – the acts necessary to see that everybody have a fair deal. It doesn’t take too much thought to realise which of these two notions of justice is more related to an expression of what Jesus refers to love of neighbour.
To use the old Bible language, it may ultimately depend on whether or not we want our actions to result in good or in bad. In this universe we live in we are surrounded by natural consequences. Every action has consequences. To return to Bishop Tutu in his book God has a Dream (Pp 80 81)
“A good deed doesn’t just evaporate and disappear. Its consequences saturate the universe and the goodness that happens somewhere, anywhere, helps in the transfiguration of the ugliness. But also it is true that a bad deed – or what the Bible calls sin – just doesn’t evaporate and disappear, its consequences saturate the universe too”.
I believe that Jesus here is on to something. There may be no shortage of laws and tricky teachings in the Bible but ultimately we have to decide which of the principles are going to set the direction of our lives. Jesus chooses two which can act as guiding beacons. Perhaps like the teacher of the law we can see how loving God whose expression is creation and love – in effect with our whole being – and loving our neighbour as ourselves, give the other teachings a key perspective. If then we can take these principles and lift them from the pages of the Bible to the pages of our life – perhaps we too might draw closer to the kingdom.