The Great Commandment
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
November 5, 2006
Scriptures: Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34
“…you shall love the Lord your God,…you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” –Mark 12:29-31
Jesus, in the last week of his life, debates religious figures and teaches the general public in the portico of the temple in Jerusalem. A religious scholar joins the group and “seeing that he answered them well,” asks Jesus, which of the commandments is the greatest. Jesus replies by quoting two commandments from their sacred scriptures, which we know as the Old Testament. The scribe asks for one commandment and Jesus gives him two, because he could not separate the love of God from the love of the neighbor. He does, however, give them in the order of God first and the neighbor second, but never the one without the other. The love of God entails love of the neighbor and love of the neighbor expresses the love of God.
That is the essence of today’s lesson, and we could go home at this point were it not for the fact that we must still check and see whether what we presume to know about love is true. We take for granted that we know what love is, and indeed we might know a lot about it, but I think it is worthwhile to take this opportunity to ask whether that is really the case and see what more we might learn. This is a difficult task because what we call love is so various and so many of its forms have has been confused and degraded.
The first commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:4 and the second from Leviticus 19:18. The first is a central part of the liturgy of worship in the synagogue and Jesus would have recited it every Sabbath. It is called the “Shema” after its first word, which means, “Hear” or in our usage, “Listen” or “Listen up!” The Shema expresses the essence of the creed of biblical religion, the oneness and uniqueness of God; there is only one God and He not one among many but the only one at all. Islam has a comparable creedal summary, which goes something like, “Allah is the one and only God and Muhammad is his prophet.” This confession then is one of the things that mark the closeness of the three Western religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam to each other; they are all monotheisms.
Jesus quotes the second commandment from Leviticus 19:18, a passage about the taking of revenge, whose full text is, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of you own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” The larger context is a series of regulations for keeping the Jewish people holy, or as we might put it, “kosher.” As it stands in Leviticus the quote restricts the concept of neighbor to ones ethnic group, and thus could be a two edged sword, cutting for Israel and against the Gentiles. This fact did not go unnoticed by the hearers of Jesus as we learn from Luke’s report of this event (Luke 10:25-37). Luke goes on to tell us that the scribe who questioned Jesus “…desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, ‘who is my neighbor?'” Why did he need to “justify himself?” Luke tells us that the questioner had asked his question as a debating move, to trap Jesus into heresy or some such wrong position, (“And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test saying,’ Teacher what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”) and when Jesus escaped by his deft answer the lawyer tried again, and this time he succeeded; he showed up the fact that Jesus was not a good Jew by the then current standards, although we of course think he is the best Jew of all, and understands the real meaning of Judaism better than most, indeed, understands and represents it perfectly. So this is not and anti-Jewish observation.
According to Luke’s gospel, in answer to the question “who is my neighbor,” Jesus told the story we know as the “Good Samaritan” of a Jewish man robbed and injured on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, being left on the roadside in his misery by three Jewish religious figures, who “passed by on the other side of the road,” for religious reasons, namely, that they could not risk their ritual purity by touching a man who might be dead, and being helped by a Samaritan who as such was an ethnic and religious pariah to Jews. This is about as provocative a story as one could tell in those circumstances.
Thus Jesus opened up the concept of neighbor to include every human being and especially those whom your group considers the most obnoxious. This universal humanism is the unique feature of the teaching of Jesus, and whether the church has always or ever practiced it, it remains the unique center and heart of the Gospel. The good news of the Gospel is that in Christ God’s love reaches out to every human being without regard to racial or cultural customs, and without regard to religion, even the Christian religion. We need not mention the current disgrace of Pastor Haggard, a sort of Pope of the Christian right who, like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Baker of yesteryear is found to be a hypocrite, or the crimes of pedophile Catholic priests, to show that we know of the hypocrisy of religion. In extending the concept of neighbor beyond ethnic bounds Jesus also and emphatically extends it beyond religious bounds, and not just inner religious sectarian splits, but all religion at all. The universal love of God does not come only through religion, and in many cases religion might be getting in its way. Are you beginning to see why the religious folk had him crucified?
The love of the one and only God extends to all and every human being, and therefore, to love the members of ones own ethnic or religious group more than others or as is most often the case, against and instead of others, is not a virtue but as sin. It is the great sin of religion, which accounts for the regular attendance of religion at most battles, wars and sieges. Religion may not cause war but it is an early participant once war has started and in this it is driven by the notion that my ethnic neighbor is the one I must love and the stranger the one I must treat warily in peacetime and in wartime hate. Our fiasco in Iraq is based on a deep underestimation of the religious and ethnic element in human society. Our reasoning there is based on our own unique polity, which is one of very few in the history of the world to have transcended the ethnic premise. I learned with surprise that 44% of Iraqis are married to their first or second cousins, which means that the basic unit of power is not the municipality or the county council, and certainly not the state, but rather the clan first, and then the religion.
Jesus knew this dismal fact about our pathetic species, that we are not far removed from the chimpanzee that lives in a clan and sees all other clans as rivals for food and safety. To counter this basic social urge to cling together against outsiders Jesus poses the idea of love for the universal neighbor, and from this feature of his idea of love we gain insight into love itself.
Naturally, that is biologically, love is the feeling of priority we bestow on our children, the special importance of those we call loved ones, who are primarily family members. Even our law endorses this priority of biology when it automatically awards children to their biological parents in circumstances where they might not be good for the child at all. Romantically, love is that powerful feeling of attraction we feel for someone else, so powerful we call the other “mine” and undertake to share everything, even or especially our bodies with them for life. This is natural love, and it is full of good things for us, but it must be allowed to grow beyond biological boundaries and clan-based affinities to the unrelated and even the unknown other.
The Samaritan who stooped for the stricken Jewish victim who, he might assume, considered him to be scum, and were he not comatose would have shrunk from his touch, – “I don’t want this nigger to touch me” – illustrates and exercises love that is on a trajectory from natural to supernatural, and this trajectory reaches its goal when we exercise that same goodwill as we show to our families and friends towards our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48: Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your friends and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”). When love for loved ones and friends, becomes love for enemies, it becomes love indeed. Prior to that it is merely love in training, the simplest kind of affinity on its way to the most profound intimacy, the love of God. I call this love of God an intimacy because when we find it we find ourselves as we really are, and all our loved ones become equally open and intimate to us, because we find them in God, that is we begin to see them as God sees them. When we finally have a self that we can give away we are also at last in a position to receive the others who might want to give them selves to us. And furthermore we enter into and share the love that God has for me and for others, so we see enemies as God sees them, and they are transformed. The only way I know to deal with enemies is to see them in prayer, pray for them and hold a positive will for them. I know of what I speak; I have prayed steadfastly for people whom I detest and who returned the compliment. I prayed for them but I never liked them.
All culture is a process of the transforming of dumb nature into word and spirit. By words we say goodbye to the ape in us, and journey towards the angel in us, from group affinity, to universal community, to spiritual intimacy, this is the path of creation, from love to Love, from group to God. So Jesus made the love for God first and the love for the neighbor, not second, but like it. Why? Because the love of God and love of the universal neighbor, whether friend or stranger, or even enemy, is one and the same supernatural energy that God gives to those who seek Him sincerely and strenuously by heeding the teaching of Jesus and opening to Christ’s divine grace. So, let’s use the image of surfing: Get your board out onto the top of that great wave and surf the love of God and all the world down home to Paradise.