When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he lists not one but two having to do with love. But is a life of faith really two-step simple? And what happens when we discover that love inevitably leads to pain?
In our American culture, we seem to like things simplified. Many people, for instance, would rather google a synopsis rather read the whole book. And for those who still read newspapers, often just the superficial headlines will do.
Not just Americans feel this way, either. Perhaps you’ve heard the possibly apocryphal story of the television reporter who covered the story of Moses coming down from the mountain bearing the Ten Commandments. Here was the opening line of what that reporter told viewers: “Moses today revealed 10 commandments from God, the three most important of which are ....”
You can imagine that, right?
Well, in the passage from Matthew that we read today, a legal expert wants Jesus to boil down the Torah to just one commandment or law. It seems at first like a silly request, given the length and complexity of the entirety of the Hebrew Bible. But Jesus not only is up to the task, he goes the extra mile by also offering what he calls the second most important commandment. Beyond that, Jesus asserts that not just the law but also the prophets all depend on the two commands he mentions, which I now will further simplify into just four words: Love God, love neighbor.
This sermon could end right here, but to do so would be to cave into the temptation to oversimplify the Bible. The reality is that there is much richness in these two commands, and we should explore how grasping some of that depth can guide us so that we can be the kind of disciples of Christ we are called to be.
The first command that Jesus mentioned, to love God with all your heart, being and strength is part of the central prayer of Judaism, the Shema (or Sh'ma Yisrael), found in the book of Deuteronomy. The Shema is a ringing affirmation of monotheism, which the King James Version puts this way: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD,”1 though it took time for the Israelites to become monotheists.
And monotheism also was a new concept for Israel’s neighbors in the time after Moses. That’s one reason Jewish leaders were so insistent that their own people understand that there is but one deity. One important aspect of monotheism was that the people were not at the whim of a rain god or a god of the crops or a god of war. The one God to whom they pledged allegiance made all the rules both clear and redemptive and was the God who loved the people unconditionally.
The people’s job, in turn, was to love this God with everything they had. This love was not a bribe to get God to love them. It was, rather, an expression of gratitude for the reality that God loved them already. In fact, God loved them before they loved God. The people’s love for God was a way of giving thanks for the divine love that was theirs for free and forever.
Why was it and why is it important that these commands were and are part of holy scripture and not just the thoughts of someone in a private letter or words from an ancient author to a small audience? Because, as Karen Armstrong says in her latest book, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts, scripture is “not designed to confirm your beliefs or endorse your current way of life; rather [it is] calling for a radical transformation of mind and heart.”2
That’s what scripture does, and what could be more radical than to put ourselves second and God first? Yes, Jesus says, we are to love ourselves, but that can happen only once we first love God fully because only then do we know who and whose we are. We can’t love others unless we first love God because what makes other people lovable is that they bear the image of God. It’s that very image to which we are responding when we love others.
Christianity is a difficult religion because, rooted in Jewish concepts, it requires each of us to love people who sometimes aren’t even likable. As a Christian, I am obliged to see Christ in every person I meet, knowing that each person bears the imago dei — the image of God. And I mean every single person, whether that person is saintly or a serial killer or even a fan of the professional sports team I dislike the most. None of those matters. All that matters is that he or she is human, a child of God and that we must treat all people lovingly because of that truth.
We are not required just to like them. Nor are we required just to tolerate them. Those standards are far too low for the standards that issue from the books of Deuteronomy, already mentioned, and Leviticus3 which Jesus quotes in the Matthew passage we read today.
Once we understand that we are to love God and love our neighbor as we love ourselves, it’s time to discover how to love ourselves. One thing loving ourselves surely does not mean is to make ourselves into the people our culture often values as opposed to the people whom God calls us to be. Our culture values fame, youth, wealth, beauty and achievement. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those values except when they become our idols, and that’s exactly what they have become for many of us.
Speaking of idolatry, what is the first of the Ten Commandments and why is it first? It’s that you should have no other gods except the one God. And it’s first because if we get that commandment right, we’ll get all the rest of them right as a natural consequence of considering nothing else on a par with God.
In one sense, all sin comes down to idolatry, putting something or someone else ahead of God. Sometimes that someone else is us. Loving ourselves does not mean putting ourselves ahead of God and it doesn’t mean putting the needs of others in second, third or fourth place. Instead, loving ourselves means recognizing that we, too, bear the image of God and that we are precious children of God, people whom God loves enough to die for.
Do you ever stop to tell yourself that God thinks you’re valuable enough to die for? That, in a simplified way, is the Christian message. What we are asked to do in return is to live lives of gratitude, lives that value the outcast, the rejected, the brokenhearted, the poor, the widow, the orphan — everybody.
One of the dangers of oversimplifying love of God, love of self and love of any kind is that we will fail to understand what it costs to love. Make no mistake: love has consequences.
J. Philip Newell makes that plain for us in his book Christ of the Celts: “If we wish to avoid suffering in our lives,” he writes, “we should shut down to the deep love-longings of our soul. For it is because we love that we are in grief when our loved ones die. It is because we love our children that we are in pain when we see them suffer. It is because we love our nations that we are in agony when we see them being false to themselves.”4
Most of you know that truth. Most of you have experienced grief because someone you loved has died or because your marriage has floundered on the sharp rocks of infidelity or because your body has betrayed you by becoming infected with some terrible disease. That kind of heartache, sorrow and anguish is possible only because you have committed to love. So each of us must ask ourselves whether the joy of love is worth the risk of pain. And the Christian answer must be yes because scripture tells us that God is love. To reject love is to reject God.
But it’s that same God who walks with us through our sorrow, through our grief, through our anguish. And God does that because this is a God who has known sorrow, is acquainted with grief and who has promised not to leave us.
So, when Jesus draws from the Jewish scriptures to affirm that our task is to love God and then love our neighbor as we love ourselves, he does so know that he is asking us to experience not just joy but also intense pain at times. And yet remember that you will not be left alone in your anguish. For what does Jesus also say to us? He says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world,”5 which is itself an act of love.
1 Deuteronomy 6:4.
2 Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts (Penguin Random House, 2019), 8.
3 Leviticus 19:18.
4 J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation (Jossey-Bass, 2008), 70.
5 Matthew 28:20 (NLV).