31st October 2021
The two commandments that Jesus said were the greatest are familiar: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’. And ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.
But here’s a question: how can you command anyone to love someone. If a parent told a child, ‘You’ve got to love me’, I suspect it wouldn’t cut much ice. Of if a husband said to his wife: ‘Love the children’, it’s not likely that would work either, and might even worsen the situation. But it depends what we mean by ‘love’.
Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament: both commands were among the instructions that Moses gave to the Israelites in the days after they escaped from
Egypt. The second, ‘Love your neighbour’ is from the book Leviticus.
The first command to ‘love God’ comes from the book Deuteronomy and is part of what the Jews refer to as the ‘Shema’, or ‘Shema Yisrael’, Hebrew for ‘Hear O Israel’, with which it starts. Observant Jews still follow the instructions that follow, reciting the ‘Shema’ and teaching it to their children. Moses told the Jews to bind the words ‘as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house’. This is actually followed to this day by strict Jewish men, who bind arm, hand and forehead with phylacteries, ‘tefillin’ in Hebrew, containing the text in question on vellum. One is bound on to the left upper arm, close to the heart, with the long leather tape wrapped ceremonially round the arm, hand and fingers. And the other is bound on to the head, with the tapes draped over the chest. In this way, heart, head and hand are all subjected to the Law. And then there’s the matter of the doorpost. Here, the command, on
vellum or paper, is fastened to a doorframe inside a little wooden or metal container, a mezuzah like these.
But this still leaves the question of how anyone, Jewish or Christian, can be expected to obey a command to love. My instinct is that we are only likely to respond positively if we are already orientated in the right direction. Love is going to be a natural response to having ourselves received love, and feel that love is an essential part of the universe, ‘in the air’ so to speak, and a potential for everyone. If we’ve not grown up with love around us at home and in the world, then this is going to be difficult, though some do triumph.
Years ago, I had a spell as an approved school housemaster. Most of the boys came from dysfunctional and often criminal families, some had had spells on the Birmingham streets, and a few had been rent boys. The headmaster knew I was a priest, and wanted me to do some chaplaincy work as well as running a house. On my first day, he took me to his study and said to me
something along the lines of: ‘Now, Richard, you’re going to have to work out how to talk to these boys about a loving heavenly Father when so many of them have fathers who deserted or abused them’. I’m not sure I really ever worked it out satisfactorily. It is very difficult to love if one has not been loved – though many of the boys did in fact triumph.
This brings us back to the question: what is love? What is the love that Jesus was referring to, particularly in terms of loving our neighbour, the second command.
You may be able to guess where we are going now. St Luke tells us how someone challenged Jesus to define the neighbour that he was supposed to love. Jesus’s answer was the parable of the Good Samaritan. It portrays a relationship between two strangers, a man who was mugged by robbers and a foreigner who happened to be passing. The foreigner showed love for the victim alright – generous love, particularly in effect leaving his credit card at the inn where he took him.
But Jesus actually asks, ‘Who was neighbour to the man who fell among thieves’. So, loving one’s neighbour included not only the foreigner loving the victim, but the victim loving the helping foreigner as well – as the victim no doubt did in gratitude, even they never met again. So the loving was a reciprocal thing.
There was nothing sentimental or even emotional about this love, in whichever direction it was being applied. It consisted of practical, self-giving love, without reference to liking the other person and without any pre-existing relationship between the two.
A lot of the time, love for God and love for neighbour amount to the same thing. All sorts of verses in the New Testament say, in effect, you can’t be doing the first if you’re not doing the second.
When Pope Francis was given some money not long ago, he sent it straight to help the Rohingya refugees with their terrible plight in Bangladesh. The Rohingya
people are part of God’s creation. When we love our neighbour, we are loving God.
The COP 26 conference is beginning today in Glasgow. The whole earth is God’s creation, and so are all the peoples in it. As we know so well by now, if the world community doesn’t take some drastic action soon, it is the poorest people who will suffer first, living on low-lying coastal land or without resources to ward off flooding, excessive heat, drought and starvation.
So, one way and another, the imperative is clear: we Christians and Jews are to love God with all our hearts and minds and action, and love our neighbour as ourselves. And then, then, like Jesus’s questioner about the Law, we shall not be far from the Kingdom of God, as Jesus assured him.