Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 31 Year B | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |
Love God.... Is that all?
[For another exposition of the main themes of "love God, and love your neighbour" from the parallel passage in Matthew see The Messiah who brings love of God and neighbour together. Note however that there are important differences between Mark and the way Matthew and Luke relate this incident, if indeed it is the same event that they are retelling.]
Love God and do as you will! Is that right? Is it enough to say that if you aim to love God in all you do, then you will need no other rules to follow; that if you love God everything else will fall into place and it will be a sufficient guide? Is there one general rule which can take the place of all others? Is there one way of summing up the whole of the law of God so that you can replace a great many laws with one great law? That was indeed a question that was being discussed among the rabbis at the time when Jesus was asked the question about which is the greatest commandment. If there is such a general law of God you might expect, as many of them did, that it would be something like the answer that Jesus gave to the scribe who was a teacher of the law.
Jesus answered with the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the "Shema", "hear, O Israel..." which became Judaism's confession of faith.
It was widely acknowledged as the key to understanding what God required, and the obligation to learn it was well remembered as they had been commanded in the words which follow:
Many pious Jews carried the words of the "Shema" written on little scrolls of parchment in small pockets attached to their persons and even today there will be such a scroll embedded in the doorpost beside the front door of many a Jewish home which spot the people will touch as they go in and out. It should not be surprising that Jesus would answer the question about which was the first or greatest commandment by reciting the "Shema".
(In Mark's account of the incident the Greek version is a little different, but it is clearly intended to quote exactly what was taught to every Jewish child and is still taught today:
Now, you will of course recall that Jesus did not stop at that point, but went on to add to the general law about loving God another about loving your neighbour:
We might ask whether that was necessary. You might say that people who really loved God would know that loving God implies that you should love your neighbour also. The early Christians knew that, as we see in the first letter of John:
If you love the parent you should love the child also. That is one way to understand the great commandments to love God and love your neighbour, so that love of neighbour follows from love of God, that is, when we recognize other people as children of God - and they are whether they know it or not. Some then might say that since love of neighbour follows from love of God it might be sufficient to say simply "Love God"; but Jesus felt it was necessary to go further and spell out the implication by adding what he called the second great commandment 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' It should not be surprising that Jesus was quoting another part of the Old Testament, the ancient Jewish law when he said that. Although Christians are inclined to think of it as an especially Christian emphasis, it was in the law of the Old Covenant with God to which the Jewish people belonged:
In its original Old Testament form the command to love your neighbour has an element of love being the fulfilment of the law, but it was necessary for Jesus to extend the teaching from one's own family and community to others who did not belong to our immediate group: so the Good Samaritan is neighbour to the one on whom he showed mercy [Luke 10:29-37]. It was in Luke's version of what might have been the same event that the questioner went on to ask who is my neighbour:
However the initial question there in Luke 10 (as in another place in Mark 10:17) was not "which is the greatest commandment", but "what must I do to inherit eternal life". They amounted to the same thing in terms of knowing what God required and the answers always pointed back to the law in the Old Covenant. It would not be surprising if in the course of Jesus' teaching as he moved from place to place there was more than one discussion of such an important matter as whether all that God requires can be summed up in one or two simple phrases, like love God and love your neighbour. The important point in Luke's adding the parable of the Good Samaritan is that Jesus found it necessary, not only to add "love your neighbour" to "love God", but that he also needed to spell out further what it meant to fulfil the command to love your neighbour. It might still be true that if you really love your neighbour and understand that to include all sorts of people, then the general rule be enough guidance.
Paul certainly thought it was possible, and said explicitly that love of neighbour would bring a person to the fulfilment of the law of God:
We have much the same thing in the letter of James,
It must have been well known among the apostles that this is what Jesus taught and that it was also how he lived. The basic idea was present in the Old Testament, but it was not as clearly and consistently spelled out as it was with Jesus. It remained a question for serious discussion at the time when Jesus was asked about it.
Although it was not as clear in terms of love of neighbour fulfilling laws like not killing and not stealing, there had been in the Old Testament plenty of examples of a related idea, that love of God summed up the other commandments, especially those commanding ritual sacrifices in worship of God.
A sacrifice of the heart implies love of God, but it was a point of controversy and sacrifices of animals were still being offered at the temple. Jesus linked this idea of sacrifices of the heart to love of neighbour as well as love of God; and he even put service to the community and forgiveness before ritual sacrifice - saying, for example, that if a man remembered when he was about to offer his gift at the altar that his brother or sister had a grievance against him, he should leave his gift of sacrifice where it was before the altar and first go and be reconciled to his brother or sister, and then come and offer his sacrifice (Matthew 5:23-24). So the emphasise and the priority are strong and clear: love God completely with your whole being - heart and soul and mind and strength - and love your neighbour as yourself, and you will fulfil all the law of God. Yet, there are still some problems for modern people in grasping what this means even if the words are plain and we should be able to accept them at face value.
The first difficulty arises from the reason for loving God and loving your neighbour in these discussions. They were not commandments delivered on their own, as if they were sufficient in themselves even if they summed up all that was required or commanded by God. Its easy to say, "All that is commanded by God", but there was a problem in that. When people say "love God and love your neighbour" is all that is required, do they really have in mind thereby doing all that God commands. Do they really want to do all that God commands? Do they use "love God and love your neighbour"as a kind of signpost to help them do all that God commands, and so aim to keep all God's commandments by loving God and loving their neighbour? Or, do they seek to avoid the burden of keeping many commands by following one very general rule in a very loose way? At the extreme you might ask do they really seek to please themselves more than pleasing God by saying, don't worry about all those little rules just keep to the one general guiding principle, a principle which they might not regard as a law at all? (Theologians and philosophers call this antinomianism, being opposed to rules in general. It is a popular distortion of Christian teaching about the grace of God.) Contemporary Western liberal democratic culture tends towards individual satisfaction rather than following community rules too closely, so "Love God and love your neighbour" becomes "Love God and do as you will", and that has a certain seductive appeal for reasons quite alien to what Jesus was talking about when he allowed love of God and love of neighbour to sum up the law of God. The big difference is that the law of God had a purpose which we tend to forget, and the aim of a pious Jewish teacher like the one who discussed this with Jesus was to satisfy the law and achieve its purpose, not to avoid it. That is why Jesus spoke well of him:
The people of Israel sought to keep the law of God because it was their side of a covenant relationship like a marriage. It was a matter of keeping faith with God. It was the covenant under which God had led them out of slavery into a new land, and under which they had been repeatedly sought out, delivered and renewed.
Their side of the covenant was to keep the law. So we have what we know as the ten commandments introduced in this way:
The prophets often reminded them of this, so we hear Jeremiah proclaim that "the Lord" being their God meant that they must keep his commands, and that was really a matter of following his voice like that of a shepherd in everyday life, rather than merely keeping, or we might say even having a sentiment in your heart:
I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.. The way they lived would show that they were his people and had kept faith with God as he did with them, and they would learn that it was the way to live well. It was about how to maintain a good relationship with God so that things might go well with them. Jeremiah repeated this formula of the covenant relationship many times.
The point of keeping the law was to keep faith with God. The law of God did not stand apart from that purpose of keeping the covenant. Rules were not to be kept for their own sake, simply because they were the law, even the law of God. The law was a practical understanding of what it meant to be faithful in their relationship, or you might say the law showed them how to love God. That was the relationship of love that they were trying to keep when they recited, love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. If then people wish to keep in mind this first and greatest commandment with the idea that it is sufficient, then it must be for the purpose of keeping faith with God in that relationship of trust in which we can still hear the word of God, "I will be your God, and you will be my people." If then anyone should ask, "Love God ... is that all?", we need to know whether it is their intention to keep faith with God or to please themselves.
There is another problem that is not obvious until you think about it. When anyone says, "Love God ... is that enough?", it matters a great deal what they mean by "God". What are they loving when they love "God". Are they loving the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? There are many ideas of what God is like, and people all too readily project their own ideas onto their image of God. We are good at making idols in our minds. That is why in the Old Testament a specific name is used to identify God. He is a particular person with a name, a name too sacred to be spoken and so they wrote it in a sort of code. We think the name was "Yahweh", a particular being who was being itself, the origin and creator of all that is. At times they made it specific, referring to a particular God by talking of historical figures whose God they meant, saying "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". In the new Testament, Paul repeatedly used the formula "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ". It was not any old god, the love of which could fulfil the law. Another way to put it is to say that there is no particular value in being religious, it depends on how you understand God. It was through the love of God who is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that the blessing of love in human life would be received as good news for all people. So Paul wrote to the Romans who were Christians among people with many gods,
It matters what you believe about who God is if you are going to live by the first and greatest commandment to love God with your whole being, just as it matters what you believe about who your neighbour is if you are to follow the second great commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.
Finally, no rule or commandment can be followed by sinful humanity with sufficient faithfulness to justify us with God entirely, even, or you might say most especially, the general rule of love. We all fall short of that. In the end we can only rely upon the grace of God. We aim to keep faith and do not seek an easy way out of our obligations to obey the will of God, we try to do what Jesus said about loving God and loving our neighbours, as in faith we do seek to live as he commands, but it is by grace that we are saved through faith.
So what do we say, "Love God ..." is that all? We look to Jesus for the answer, just as the Jewish teacher looked to him - but when we look we might well see him on the cross! Then we know in faith that, costly as is was, in the end God's love for us was triumphant. He raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and so we may hope in his grace to love God in spite of our weaknesses and thus fulfil his commands, and live to celebrate the victory with him. Glory be to him, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
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