Being God’s Beloved: Day 23: The Great Commandment

Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.

One day, Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:36). The question is similarly phrased in Mark 12:28, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

It is wonderful that Jesus was asked this question, because his answer points us to Jesus’ understanding of the heart of God’s Will.[1] After all, the Law is, essentially, an expression of God’s will for how we ought to be as human beings, and how we ought to relate to the world around us. The question could just as well have been, “What is the centre of God’s Will?”

Jesus answers, in Matthew’s version,

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Mark’s version is similar, but has some differences:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).

The key difference in Mark is the inclusion of the Shema, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” which precedes the command to love God in the source for this first commandment in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. The Shema was recited twice daily by Jewish people, as a statement of faith or creed. Devout Jews also have the Shema written on the doorposts of their home and on phylacteries tied to their foreheads, in keeping with the instruction of Moses in Deuteronomy 6:6-9.[2] In so doing, Mark’s version emphasises that the commands to love are in response to who God is and what God does.

Mark also differs by the inclusion of “and with all your strength”, though this is in fact part of the source in Deuteronomy. On the other hand, “and with all your mind” is not in Deuteronomy, but included in both Matthew and Mark.

Scholars may debate the reasons for these differences, but what strikes us from the first commandment to love God is the repeated use of all. The love for God that is described here is holistic and all-encompassing. Jesus is describing a kind of love that draws on every facet of our being. He is saying that our entire self is to be turned towards God in love. This is not merely emotional love, such as one might see on the soap operas. Nor is it an intellectual love one might read in the philosophers. Nor is it the physical love one might experience in the bedroom. Rather, this is a love that draws on the whole person.

We have looked previously at the concept of chesed, meaning God’s unfailing loving-kindness towards those with whom God is in a covenant relationship. That love for us – that chesed – encompasses the whole of us. God loves every facet of who we are. God does not merely love our spirit, or the good deeds that we do, or the virtuous thoughts that we think. God loves everything about us. And so, our reciprocated love for God must be similarly holistic. “Because the whole [person] is the object of God’s covenant love, the whole [person] is claimed by God for himself.”[3]

The second part of the commandment, which Jesus says is “like” the first, is to love our neighbour as ourselves, and is drawn from Leviticus 19:18. This involves a similarly whole-hearted, whole-person love for one’s neighbour. We recall the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37, which clarifies who “our neighbour” is – everyone is our neighbour. The kind of love that Jesus calls us to, in relation to other people, has no boundaries – it is a universal love for all of humanity, both collectively (meaning, a general love for all people) and individually (meaning, we are called to love each individual personally and specifically). On Day 16 we said that love is “an active desire for the well-being of the neighbour, and for communion with him or her, based on a recognition of the neighbour’s unique worth”.[4]

Jesus closely connects these two familiar commandments:  “This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it” (Matthew 22:38-39a). Although there are two answers, he was asked for the greatest commandment, not two commandments. Clearly, Jesus sees these as so closely intertwined that they are as one.

A little bit of Hebrew grammar will give us insight into an important theological and practical aspect of the Great Commandment. Both the Old Testament sources of the Great Commandment (Deuteronomy and Leviticus) use the jussive form of ‘love’ in the Hebrew.[5] The jussive is a way of expressing one’s volition or desire or intention, but is not as strong as an imperative, which is much more like a direct command to do something.[6] The jussive is thus a subtler and gentler way of expressing choice. In translating jussive Hebrew verbs into English, it is often helpful to put the words ‘let’ or ‘may’ before the verb, such as ‘let him love’ or ‘may he love’.

In the two calls to love, the Hebrew uses the jussive form, thus they are not translated as imperatives or commands, “You must love the Lord” and “You must love your neighbour”. This is important because such a command can easily degenerate into an external performing of the appearance of love, without a true volition, choice or intention to love. While one can easily command someone to perform an activity (such as, “Don’t hit your little sister”), it is usually counterproductive to command someone to feel or desire something (such as, “Enjoy playing with your little sister”). In such cases, it is far better to use a gentler form, which the jussive allows (“May you develop an enjoyment for playing with your little sister”). Thus these are not commands to “Love”. Rather they are encouragements that could be better translated, “You are to love…” or “May you love…” The call to love is more to cultivate love in one’s heart than to merely perform loving actions.

The only places in the Old Testament where the jussive form of the verb ‘love’ is used are in Deuteronomy 6:5 and 11:1 (both of which say, “Love the Lord your God”) and Leviticus 19:18 and 19:34 (which say, “Love your neighbour as yourself” and “Love him as yourself”).[7] Together, they express God’s singular Will, God’s central volition, which is, “You are to love”.

There is just one Divine Will – God desires that we love. This singular Will to love is expressed into two spheres of life – in our relationship with God and in our relationship with other people.[8] But it is just one Will. Thus, these two commandments are, in fact, one command, the command to love.

The first expression of love is towards God – we love God because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). Our love for God is always reactive, in that we are responding to what God has initiated. We are never the initiators with God, because God already loved us before we were conceived. We are always responding to God.

But our love for our neighbour, which is the second expression of love, is different. We do not love our neighbour because our neighbour first loved us. No! The parable of the Good Samaritan makes this abundantly clear – the injured man was in no position to love anyone, and so the Samaritan’s love for him is something that the Samaritan initiated. However, even this love for our neighbour springs forth as a response to God’s love for us. It is as we become more fully aware of and experience God’s love for us that our capacity to love others, particularly those who are unlovely or our enemies, develops. We love others because God first loved us. Thus, the wellspring of our love for both God and our neighbours is God’s love for us.

God does not instruct us to love as one might instruct a soldier. Rather, God does two things to move us to love. First, God loves us first. God sets the example. God fills our hearts with love. God persists in loving us even when we spurn God’s love. God loves fully and unconditionally and extravagantly. God’s entire mission to humanity is motivated by love. Everything that God does towards us is an expression of that love. And second, God moves us towards greater love by exercising Divine Will. God prompts us to love with the call to love, with the reminder that as much as we are loved by God we are called to love others. But God does not coerce us to love others. As our hearts are filled with the love of God, love will overflow from our beings and spill into our relationships with family, friends, colleagues, strangers and even enemies. God woos us to become loving.

May it be that you love God with the whole of your being, and your neighbour as yourself.

Meditation for the Day

Reflect on everything that you have learned so far about God’s love for you. In light of that, how do you feel about expressing the fullness of this love in your relationship to God and to your neighbour?

Prayer for the Day

God of infinite love, thank you that you loved me long before I loved you. Continue to cultivate in me an ever deeper love for you and for other people, including those I find particularly hard to love.

Being_Gods_Beloved_square_3


[1] Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 432.

[2] France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 845.

[3] Lane, p. 432.

[4] Woodhead, in Marshall, p. 27.

[5] France, p. 846.

[6] Ellis, R. R. (2006). Learning to read Biblical Hebrew: An introductory grammar. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, pp. 174-175.

[7] France, p. 846.

[8] France, p. 843.

One thought on “Being God’s Beloved: Day 23: The Great Commandment

  1. […] what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus quotes the Great Commandment (which we discussed on Day 23). The second part of the Great Commandment is to love one’s neighbour as oneself. The man asks, […]

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