The command to love and the gift of love
This evening we begin a new series looking at several passages from the Bible about love
And today we begin with a really important passage: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and ... love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22.37-40)
It is a command that appears in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John doesn't include it, but he does include Jesus saying, ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’ (John 15.12)
1. Love is the rock on which all the other commandments stand
There was a debate between the school of Shammai and Hillel about whether the law could be summarised.
A story is told that a man went to Rabbi Shammai and asked him if he could teach him the whole of the law while standing on one leg. The Rabbi smacked him round the face for being so impudent. The man then asked Rabbi Hillel the same question, and Hillel, standing on one leg, said, "Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind."
That declaration, that God is the only God, that he is the God of Israel, and that we are to love him, is a quote from Deuteronomy 6.4-5. It is called the Shema, and it is repeated each day by faithful Jews.
Jesus adds something to the Shema. He is probably not the first to do so. But he adds two verses from Leviticus 19 (v18 and v34) in which the command is 'to love your neighbour as yourself'.
That does not mean, as many people think, that Jesus is saying that we have to first learn to love ourselves before we can love our neighbour. Rather I think – when you look at the passage in Leviticus – he is saying that we are to love our neighbour as if they were one of our very own. So Leviticus 19.34, ‘The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt’.
And I think what it is saying is that there is a deep connection between us and our neighbour. If we despise or reject our neighbour, we are despising or rejecting ourselves. If we love our neighbour, because our neighbour is like us, we are loving ourselves.
So there are these two great commands to love. And this love for God and love for neighbour is the summary of the law.
In Matthew 7.12 Jesus says something quite similar – although he speaks in terms of obedience and action, rather than in terms of love: 'In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets' (Matt 7.12)
He is not taking the 612 commands and the 365 prohibitions of the law and saying that they are now redundant in the face of the command to love. Rather he is saying that love of God and love of neighbour is the hook on which all those other laws hang. It is the rock on which they stand. If we want to know how to correctly interpret all those other laws and commands then we need to understand them in the light of this command to love.
2. Love is about what motivates us. It is not just about the things we do.
One commentary interprets this passage like this: "It is obvious, however, that the use of the verb ἀγαπήσεις, "you shall love," does not mean the same thing in both places. In neither case is love construed as an emotion. Love for one's neighbour means acting toward others with their good, their well-being, their fulfilment, as the primary motivation and goal of our deeds. Such love is constant and takes no regard of the perceived merit or worth of the other person. Love of God, on the other hand, is to be understood as a matter of reverence, commitment, and obedience"
I am not convinced that is right.
I don’t think that we should try to take emotion, or delight and desire, out of love. If Jesus had wanted us to serve God or be committed to him, he would have said that the great command was to 'Obey the Lord your God'. If he had wanted us to act towards the other with their good and well-being as our primary motivation, he could have said 'Serve your neighbour'. But he chooses to use the word ‘love’.
[When Luke records this passage there is only one verb: 'Love the Lord your God .. and your neighbour as yourself', and I think we have to take it that the love we show God is the same kind of love that we are to show our neighbour.]
Love is about seeing the other person as God sees them; seeing not just the physical but the eternal in them. And love is about seeing the other as, like us, created by God with a potential divine dignity and eternal destiny. It is about delighting in them and it is about desire. Not physical desire, but desire for an eternal soul union with them.
There are two main Greek words for love: agape and eros, from which we get our word erotic love. The New Testament uses the word agape and not eros when it speaks of love. But that is not because there is no element of desire in their understanding of the word agape.
When the Jewish fathers translated the Hebrew into Greek, they used the word agape to describe the desire love, erotic love, that we read about in the Song of Solomon.
Love is not just about praxis, what we do. Love is also about our motivation. It is about what we delight in and what we desire.
So when the bible speaks of the divine love it is speaking not only of what God does, but of why God does what he does.
‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son’ (John 3.16)
‘But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us’ (Romans 5.9)
Jesus tells us, ‘Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15.13), but he then showed us what it means. He died for us in the certainty of resurrection, because he delighted in us and so that we could be reconciled to God and to him.
In Hebrews 12.4 we are told that Jesus suffered the shame of the cross 'for the joy set before him'.
What was that joy?
The joy of calling those who were his enemies his brothers and sisters.
Because he delights in us, and he wants us to be his friends.
So when Jesus here says that we are to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves, he is saying that we are to see God as God is and we are to see our neighbour as God sees them, as people who are similar to us; and we are to delight in God and we are delight in people made in his image. And we are to desire eternal union with God, and eternal soul union with others in God.
Forgive me. I am making this quite complex, when it doesn’t need to be.
This is about what drives us.
What are the desires that motivate us?
There is the story told of the man whose greatest desire was to improve his golf handicap. He looked at that ranking in the club house and he longed to go up the board. One day he came home after a day at the golf course, and his wife asked him how it had been. 'Dreadful', he replied, 'Fred had a heart attack on the third hole. And it just got worse. Hit ball, drag Fred. Hit ball, drag Fred'.
What are our desires? The desire for beauty, truth, stimulation, friendship, wishing that others will think well of us, the satisfaction of our immediate physical cravings (for food or sex or drink or some other high).
The challenge of Deuteronomy 6 and of Matthew 22 is that we need to put love for God, delight for God, and delight for other people (who are created like us) at the very centre of our being.
We are to love him 'with all our heart, soul and mind'.
The ancients understood the heart as being the seat of all desire, the mind the seat of all reason, and the soul the seat of the consciousness.
Our mind needs to be directed towards God. In Matthew 16, Peter tries to persuade Jesus not to go ahead with the crucifixion. Jesus replies: 'You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things'. (Matt 16.23)
Our heart needs to be directed towards God. In Matthew 6.19ff, Jesus says that where our treasure is, there our heart will be; and later, you cannot serve two masters, for you will hate one and love the other.
Plato argues that the soul is what controls the body. It consists of our mind and our heart. The desires are like horses, and the mind is like a chariot. The mind, the chariot, is trying to steer the horses, the desires; but they are constantly pulling in different directions. One wants to go this way, and the other that way. And what we end up is a chariot that goes everywhere and nowhere!
What we are commanded here is to be single minded in our delight for God and the things for God and in our desire for them. It is to have our heart and our head set on the same thing. It is a charge to be single focussed.
I am told that the reason that lion tamers take a stool into the arena with the lion is not so that they can stand taller. Apparently, in case of trouble, they approach the lion with the stool legs facing the lion. The lion apparently does not know which leg to focus on, and the tamer can get out fast!
So the command to love God with heart, soul and mind is the command to be single minded, not just in our obedience of God, but in our delight of him and in our desire for him.
3. This is an impossible command
How can you possibly tell someone who they are to love?
How can you possibly tell someone who they are to love?
But then, all the great commands of Jesus are impossible! He commands us to not be afraid, not to be anxious, to be at peace. He commands us to trust. He commands us to have faith. He commands us to be perfect. He commands us to rejoice!
I can’t do any of those things by will. I can sing or say things in praise of God, but I cannot order myself to rejoice.
And these commands, including the command to love, are commands which drive us to our knees.
Love is a gift from God, but it is a gift that he longs to give. And we simply need to recognise that we do not love God or love our neighbour, and ask God to give us the gift.
St Augustine, who wrote a great deal about love, tells us that we should love love. If we love, desire, this kind of love then we desire God.