On love, loving God, and loving our neighbour – reflections on the Greatest Commandment

Jeanette - April 2013I am posting some notes from my talk a few weeks ago. I draw from Mark 12:28-34  – The Greatest Commandment.

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

Rather than share a lot of my own thoughts or make a specific argument, I’ve been inspired to reflect on the greatest commandment through the writings of others and passages of the Bible that ask questions about love and justice and that challenge us to follow the greatest commandment. The greatest commandment is all about love. First, what is love? What does love look like? Here is an excerpt from John Caputo’s book, On Religion. He asserts that love is a how not a what.

Let us speak then of love. What does it mean to love something?…if love is the measure, we the only measure of love is love without measure (Augustine). One of the ideas behind “love” is that it represents giving without holding back, an “unconditional” commitment, which marks love with a certain excess… Love is not a bargain, but unconditional giving; it is not an investment, but a commitment come what may. Lovers are people who exceed their duty, who look around for ways to do more than is required of them… Rather than rigorously defending their rights, lovers readily put themselves in the wrong and take the blame for the sake of preserving their love. Love, St. Paul said in his stunning hymn to love, is patient, kind, not puffed up or boastful; it bears all things, believes all things hopes all things, endures all things. A world without love is a world governed by rigid contracts and inexorable duties, a world in which – God forbid! – the lawyers run everything. The mark of really loving someone or something is unconditionality and excess, engagement and commitment, fire and passion.

When I think about the love of God, I am always drawn back to 1 John: 4-12:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

What then, of the love of God? What does it mean to love God? John Caputo says that the love of God is the “possibility of the impossible”. That when we are moved by the love of God, we become unhinged. When we love God, we are impassioned by the impossible.

When we come unhinged, when our powers and our potencies are driven to their limits, when we are overwhelmed, exposed to something we cannot manage or foresee, then, in the limit situation of the possibility of the impossible, we experience the limits, the impossibility, of our own possibilities. Then we sink to our knees in faith and hope and love, praying and weeping like mad… Here, in the sphere of these limit situations, we are asked to believe what seems incredible… to believe what seems highly credible or even likely requires a minimum of faith, whereas to believe what seems unbelievable, what it seems impossible to believe, that is really faith. If you have real faith, Jesus said, you could say to the Mountain “move from here to there” and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you (Matt 17:20). So too, to hope when all seems hopeless, to “hope against hope,” as St Paul says, that is really hope, as opposed to the sanguinity that comes when the odds are on our side, which is the hope of a mediocre fellow. Finally, to dare to love someone far above our station, like a beggar in love with a princess, or to dare to think that someone so wonderful could love us, to dare to love in such an impossible situation, that is love worth its salt. Or, to go to a further and still more paradoxical extreme: to love someone who is not loveable. It is no great feat, after all, to love the loveable, to love our friends and those who tell us we are wonderful; but to love the unlovable, to love those who do not love us, to love our enemies – that is love. That is impossible, the impossible, which is why we love it all the more. So the unhinged life of love and hope and faith is more saltier and more passionate and more worth living…

We begin to lose our grip and find ourselves in the grip of something that carries us along. We are exposed, vulnerable, expectant, in motion, moving, being moved, by the impossible. We are transformed…

I am driven by love to understand what I love when I love my God… I am beset by love, overtaken by love, drawn out of myself by love. I understand that this whole idea of a self rests in this dedication, this gift of myself, to something beyond my own self-love – to the children, all the children, not just my own, to the future, to the least among us.”

God lives in us, and we cannot be separated from God’s love. And we are asked to express and extend God’s love to our fellow human beings… wherever there is God, there is love. Wherever there is love there is God. That is how we can act to make God’s presence felt in the world; that is how we can discover God’s presence. It is where there is love. When we do not know how to love, or how to act in response to God’s love, we can look to Jesus. How did he live and respond? Here is more from John Caputo, on the  mystery of Jesus and the love of God:

The Christian… is someone who confesses that the power of God is with Jesus, that Jesus is Emmanuel, which means “God with us”, and at the same time, in the same breath, is continually disturbed by the question that Jesus asks, “who do men say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Contrary to the condensed wisdom of the bumper stickers, Jesus is not The Answer but the place of the question, of an abyss that is opened up by the life and death of a man who, by putting forgiveness before retribution, threw all human accounting into confusion, utterly confounding the stockbrokers of the finite, who always seek a balance of payments, which means who always want to settle the score. Who is this many who counsels us to forgive, to give up what is our due, who asks, who did, the impossible? What does his life and death tell us about ourselves, including those among us who, because of an accident of birth, have never heard his name? What is happening in and what is opened up by our memory of Jesus, by the mystery of his unaccountable teachings of forgiveness and who told us to be of a new heart? What is contained in our memory of Jesus that cannot be contained by all the accumulated prestige and power of the institutions and structures, the creedal formulae and the theologies, that dare speak in his name? What mystery unfolds there? The mystery of the love of God, to be sure.

What did Jesus do? He gave his life for us. These verses also speak to me about the love of God and what we are called to.

1 John 3:16-20 

16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

19 This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:20 If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

1 John 4:16-21

16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

I want to turn briefly to MLK Jr who provided a living example of someone with a passion for the impossible, someone who demonstrated the how not just the what of love. In one of his speeches, he speaks of “maladjusted people”, which to me is another exploration of what it means to be “unhinged”. In another, he speaks of his commitment to love.

…there are certain things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted… let me say to you that I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.

So let us be maladjusted, as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, “Let justice run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Let us be as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. Let us be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could look into the eyes of men and women of his generation and cry out, “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.” I believe that it is through such maladjustment that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circules today. I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. And I have seen too much hate… on the faces of sheriffs in the South… on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.

In Romans 12:9-21, we learn more about love in action:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love.Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor,serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.[a] Do not be conceited.

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[b] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[c]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Love is risky. Love is not self-preservation, it is about the other, it is about what is beyond ourselves. Love involves struggle, pain & sacrifice, it always has and always will. But it’s what makes life worth living. It’s what keeps us going when nothing else makes sense.

Our values at the Commons and how we live them out are different expressions of love for God and our neighbours. As John Caputo writes, “When the love of God calls, we had better answer. When the demand for justice comes calling, we had better answer “here I am!” For it is God calling, and we must be responsive, responsible.” How we respond involves responding to the hatred we are surrounded by and the oppressive systems we are a part of. Our care for each other as individuals and our quest for social change, our pursuit of justice in Hamilton, are all part of responding to God’s love and our mission to love God and our neighbours with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.