I had the opportunity to preach a few Sundays ago, which is always an interesting negotiation between what I feel needs to be said and what I feel the congregation will be able to hear. The following is not all of what I preached, but it is the portion that I thought was relevant to what I have posted previously on what I believe. Perhaps it will clarify a little some of the things that I wrote at that time.
I have been thinking a great deal over the past few years about what it means for me to love God and to love my neighbour as myself, because it seems to me that the very core of Christ’s message lies in these commands. The commands to love God and to love our neighbour find their source in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and Christ not only affirms these passages when they are quoted to him by the young lawyer in Luke 10, but he also quotes these passages himself twice, in Matthew 22 and Mark 12. Very few ideas in Christian scripture have this kind of pedigree, so the dual command to love God and to love our neighbour would certainly warrant our attention even if Christ did not emphasize its importance so strongly, yet he does emphasize it to an extraordinary degree. “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets,” he says. “There is no other commandment greater than these,” he claims. They are “worth more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices,” he affirms. “Do this,” he says, “and live.”
And yet, despite the tremendous significance that Christ grants to these words, and despite the significance that most Christians would also grant to them in theory, I think that many Christians are deeply uncertain about how they are to love God and to love their neighbour. If you ask them about how they love God, they will usually, in all sincerity, give you the answers that they were taught in Sunday School: that they need to obey God’s commands and read the Bible and pray and be a part of a faith community, and while these are all good things, to be sure, I would suggest that none of them is really loving God.
It is possible to obey commands out of fear, to read the Bible out of habit, to pray out of duty, to join a faith community out of loneliness. These things are not love in themselves. They can never be love in themselves. They can only ever be, at best, the signs of our love, the burnt offerings and sacrifices that are mentioned by the scribe in Mark. And the question remains: How do we love God? How do we love something that we cannot see or touch? How do we love something that is sufficient to itself, that needs nothing we can offer? How do we love God in a way that is meaningful and tangible?
The answer to this question, or least the beginning of an answer, can be found in the way that Christ joins the two commandments together. Inititally they are not joined at all. Deuteronomy 6:5 contains the command to love God and Leviticus 19:18 the command to love our neighbour. The two are entirely distinct. They remain distinct, though now in close proximity in the Luke passage, where the lawyer merely quotes one after the other, joining them together with a conjunction. In Matthew and Mark, however, the two passages where Christ quotes the commands himself, the injunction to love God and to love our neighbour are joined together in a much closer way. “This is the first and great commandment and the second is like it,” Christ says in Matthew. In Mark, he says again, “This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this.”
What does Christ mean by this phrase “is like it”? How is loving our neighbour like loving God? What is the relation between loving our neighbour and loving God? Does it really imply, as it seems, that loving God and loving our neighbour are similar acts?
There would be much scriptural support for this idea. In Mark 5, for example, where Christ also makes reference to the command to love our neighbours, expanding it to include loving our enemies, he says that we should love others in this way in order that we may become sons of our Father in heaven. James goes so far as to claim that those who do not love their neighbours have a dead faith. John says that anyone who does not love remains in death. In each of these examples, our spiritual vitality and our very status of children of God are directly tied to the command to love our neighbours.
This does not even account for the innumerable occasions on which the New Testament writers, Paul in particular, emphasize that we fulfill the law of God and show ourselves to be Christians precisely through our love. “Love each other as I have loved you,” says Christ. “Love others, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law,” says Paul. “Love one another deeply, from the heart,” says Peter. And I could literally list these exhortations for pages. There is no command in all of the New Testament that is stated so often and in so many ways.
If even all of this could be argued away, however, Christ makes the connection between loving God and loving our neighbours unavoidable in Matthew 25: 31-46:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ “Then He will also say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ “Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
In this passage Christ explicitly links loving others with loving God, links them so closely that loving the first is in actuality loving the second. There is no distinction between the two. To love those in need is to love God. To ignore those in need is to ignore God. There is no separation.
Even more interesting, Christ includes not a single other criterion for loving God. He does not say that loving others and praying a certain amount or reading a certain amount of the Bible or sitting on a certain number of committees is loving God. Loving those in need is the sole way to love God and the sole criterion by which God will judge us. Why? Because, as Christ and the apostles never tire of telling us, to love one another is the whole of the law. It is all that is required to fulfill the law. Love God by loving your neighbour: This is greater than offerings and sacrifices.
Yet this idea, put into practice, would scandalize most Christians. The idea that truly loving those around us, not merely being nice or acting out of duty, but truly loving them, with all the sacrifice that this love entails, is the only way to love God and the only criterion by which we will be judged, is deeply scandalous in a church culture that has for the most part, throughout its entire history, been content to love only insofar as it does not interfere with building churches and running programs and imposing morals and collecting tithes and pretending to holiness.
And yet, to love others as if we are loving God is the greatest commandment. It contains all the Law and the Prophets. It is better than offerings and sacrifices. To do it is to live.