During the last week of his life, Jesus entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, spent the subsequent nights in Bethany, probably at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, and taught in the Temple on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and part of Thursday. He was arrested Thursday evening after dinner and crucified the next day. He knew he was walking into danger when he came to Jerusalem in the first place.
Our gospel today takes place on Monday or Tuesday of that week, when the Pharisees, Sadducees, and members of the royal house were trying to trick him into saying something religiously heretical or politically rebellious against the Roman occupying authority. The Pharisees sent a lawyer to ask him, Which is the greatest of the commandments? The trick in the question is that all the commandments are binding, and any one that Jesus would choose as greatest could be challenged on behalf of the others. Jesus answered with none of the Ten Commandments. Rather, he misquoted Deuteronomy 6:5, which said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” According to Matthew, Jesus said heart, soul, and mind, rather than might. The parallel passages in Mark and Luke fix up Jesus’ misquotation by having him say to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, or might. The point is, the greatest commandment is to love God with everything you’ve got.
Without stopping Jesus went on to say, “This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” The phrase, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” comes from Leviticus 19, which is in the middle of what scholars call the “Holiness Code,” designed to give a special ethic to the Israelites to distinguish them from their neighbors. Generally, the Holiness Code is a bunch of “you shall nots.” “Thou shalt nots.”
The astonishing thing about Jesus’ answer was that it transformed the whole issue of commandments, which usually had meant negative prohibitions that articulated the special covenant Israel had with God, to the positive commandment to love, first God and then neighbor. Of course, love was not alien to his Jewish heritage—Jesus after all was quoting the Hebrew Bible. But the transformation of the meaning of commandment from prohibition to the positive skill and habit of loving is extraordinary.
Was Jesus going too far? It is always possible, if difficult, to avoid doing prohibited things. But how can we be commanded to love? How can we command our hearts? Jesus’ commandments about love were radical and rigorous. Christians are supposed to have been living under the commandments to love from the beginning, but our history has been just as filled with holy wars as that of the Muslims who now preach jihad or the ancient Israelites who tried to exterminate the residents of Canaan in order to possess that land. In historical fact, ours is a religion of violence as much as a religion of love. Was Jesus just unrealistic?
No, Jesus knew that the commandment to love God wholly, with everything we have, and with no reserve, was the first and greatest commandment. Jews would not disagree. But Jesus also believed that such love of God is impossible without the radical love of neighbor. Not only is love of neighbor like the love of God, it is a condition for loving God. If you cannot love your neighbor, then you cannot love God.
Part of what Jesus had in mind was hypocrisy. We say we love God but we treat God’s children unjustly. We leave them in poverty, exploit them, make war on them, behave arrogantly toward them, demean them, and despise them. This was Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders during his last week, when he said that they called people to follow the law, including loving God, but themselves were selfish, lying hypocrites. So are we all when we profess love of God but tolerate injustice, poverty, exploitation, war, arrogance, cruelty, or hatred. We are hypocrites if we think or say we love God but do not love our neighbors.
Jesus’ position has a deeper reason, however. God, you see, is unlovable by most standards. To love those who are good to us is easy. That is why loving friends is so much easier than loving enemies. In the case of God, our initial impulse to love God is usually premised on the understanding that God is good and worthy of our love, especially good to us, if not others. So much of our theology pumps up the belief that God is really good to us and that the bad things that happen are our fault. We can be grateful and loving to the God who gives us health and wealth, great weather and a flourishing economy, great talents and a job market just waiting for them. Who could fail to be grateful and loving for all that? Much of our popular religion imagines God as an immense spiritual moral agent who, by nature, does only good, and who rewards people who are good and punishes those who are bad.
Yet we all know that this is vain fiction. However healthy we are at some point, we all sicken and die. Blue skies are fine, but hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes devastate our lives. A few are rich, but most people in the world are dirt poor and live in degraded, oppressed, exploitative conditions. Some of us are talented, but most of us are not and some of us are just klutzes. The market rarely wants what we have in our hearts to offer. If we are to be faithful to the fundamental doctrine of creation, then God creates the disasters as well as the delights. This is a terrible truth, one which religious people go to great lengths to deny. Consider three dodges.
First, some people say that there is a counter-god, a devil or Satan. Whereas God is responsible for the good, Satan is responsible for the evil, they posit. Often these people see the world as a battleground between the forces of good and evil, a view that too easily leads them to see their battles as God’s battles and assume divine sanction for them. Many conservative Christians and Muslims think this way, though oppositely in terms of their sides. But if Satan is equal to God, then God is not the creator; if Satan is subordinate to God, then God is Satan’s creator and is responsible for Satan’s evil. To say, as many do, including the fans of the “Left Behind” series of books, that God allows Satan to cause vast evil and suffering so that he can beat Satan up in the end, is to attribute to God a morbidly adolescent and vicious character. This theological dodge fails.
Second, some people say that God is not the omnipotent creator but is only a finite good spirit, perhaps surpassing all others but still impotent to prevent evil and ensure that only good things to happen. God is doing the divine best, but that is insufficient to conquer evil. This is the position of most personalists and process theologians. Aside from abandoning the fundamental affirmation that God is creator of the whole world, this advocacy of the finite, benign, struggling, but weak God leads to unbelief. Why believe in such a God at all? That theology does not explain why or how there exists the cosmos, nor does it provide ideals that do not come from human experience itself. This theological dodge also fails.
Third, some people say that God really is good and in charge, and we merely do not see it. They say that when people suffer, they somehow deserve to suffer, however innocent they seem. And when the evil people flourish in this life, and the good do not, all this will be reversed in heaven. After the Holocaust, however, or the recent Pakistan earthquake, or the devastations of Katrina, or the Tsunami, or the Rwandan massacres, or the Armenian genocide, or the medieval Black Death, or Noah’s flood that killed all those animals and innocent children, who can believe this dodge? The proportion of injustice and suffering in this world simply defies any balancing act of moral deserts or rectifying pie in the sky bye and bye. After the twentieth century, no one can believe that a morally good God is really in charge of history.
The tough point is, the glorious God who creates also destroys. The God who gives us life, gives us a life with pain and suffering as well as joys. The God who creates a world with moral standards that are recognized in every civilization does not behave like a moral agent within that world. While we are filled with gratitude for some things, if we conceive of God to be a moral agent, we must also be filled with hate for the cosmic violence of creation. It is hard, hard, hard for us to love that God.
Love of neighbors is therefore training for love of God. Some of our neighbors are good and friendly folks, building up our community and helping us in our particular projects. But a lot of them are indifferent, incompetent, unproductive, dependent, or hostile. Some are even competently organized to oppose us. Some are hell-bent on wreaking evil where they can. A great many people are conditioned by cultures that make them burdens on the larger society to which they are hostile anyway. How can we love such people, especially those who are effective and powerful enemies? Jesus has a way. It is difficult and is likely to endure crucifixions of many sorts. But he has a way. The Gospel of John does not tell of Jesus quoting the Great Commandment, but it is about love all the way through. In the conversation after the last supper, Jesus tells his disciples, who generally are a bunch of losers as they are about to prove in the next twenty four hours, that he has taught them to love one another by loving them himself. And, because of this, God loves them and they are able to love God. The way to treat enemies, Jesus taught, is to love them so that they become lovers too. That is what love really means—to turn the beloved into a better lover. If we can learn to love our enemies, then we have a chance to be honest about God and still love God.
If we are to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we need to get beyond the cheap love of God for material benefits and also the corresponding hatred of God for material pain. We need to accept the mixed life God gives us, with both beauties beyond compare and suffering beyond merit. The loveliness of God, like the loveliness so hard to see in our enemies, consists in the glorious freedom of creation. Whereas we human beings, enemies included, create within very circumscribed limiting conditions, God creates with no limiting conditions. God is the source of the vast, wild cosmos, of the evolution of the Earth as our fragile habitat, of the burgeoning of species and human communities that fight one another for living space, of our biology and social bonds that make civilized life possible, but also require decay and death, competition and contention, spite, revenge, and hatred. Jesus’ contribution was to show a way to accept all these conditions of life while living so as to turn away hatred, revenge, and spite, to work through contention to friendship, to turn competition to cooperation, to rejoice that life trumps death, and to accept decay as the work of the Holy Spirit on the way to new things. While life is never to be un-fragmented and unambiguous, it need not be alienated from its Creator.
So I invite you to bind yourself to the two commandments, so like one another, to love unlovely neighbors and to love unlovely God. In both cases, what begins as unlovely turns to glorious beauty and loveliness. Though we glimpse God as Creator and Destroyer, Redeemer and Judge, Wild Spirit of construction and destruction, we are lured to rapture by the deeper glimpse of God as the fiery abyss of creation out of which we come to be together with the vast cosmos and on whose energy we take life. God is the deepest part of our soul, connecting us in creation with every other creature at the deepest level, friends and enemies alike. Our own creative love, like that of our neighbors, is a spark of God’s creative fire. Even to know this about ourselves already is to love the God loving us into being.