How to Love

November 4, 2018/Mark 12:28-34


We throw the word around so glibly, so … thoughtlessly.  I love you, we say to our husband or wife, son or daughter, friend or casual acquaintance.  I love you.

If we thought a little more about that word, about what it means, what it calls for us to do and be with regard to the people we’re handing it out to like so many dime-store valentines or little heart-shaped candies, we’d probably say it a lot less.  If we really heard what Jesus says about love, about who we are supposed to love and how we are supposed to love, we might never say it again.

Jesus wasn’t the first person to talk about the importance of love.  Six hundred years before the birth of Christ, Lao Tse developed his philosophy of Taoism.  He said, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”  A hundred years later, Confucius modified his words: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”  In ancient Greece it became, “Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing,” and in ancient Egypt it was, “That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.”[1]

But Jesus’ words press us to a deeper understanding of love, and to a deeper commitment.  It all starts with God.

In our reading from Mark, a Jewish scribe approaches Jesus to ask a question.  He doesn’t seem to be challenging Jesus, so much as engaging in a theological discussion with him.  He’s been listening as Jesus talked with the others.  This is a person, he thinks, with whom he can have a deeper conversation.  So he asks his big question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

Jesus answers with the familiar words from Moses in Deuteronomy:

Shema, Y’israel!  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.”  But then he jumps over to the Holiness Codes in Leviticus to add, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Listen!  Love God!  Love your neighbor as yourself!

It sounds simple enough, but look closer.  It starts with God.  It starts with the God who created everything around us – the sun and moon and stars, the creeks and oceans, the deer and wild turkey and red-tailed hawk, the tiny baby with eyes too big for her face and the old man wrinkled and gnarled – God created all of it.  Including us.  And God called all of it good.

When we couldn’t figure out how to be good in God’s good creation, God sent Jesus to live among us – God enfleshed, God taking the form of a servant, God walking around and, well, serving.  Serving us.  And this Jesus, God-with-us, tells us, love God with everything you are.  Love God from the tips of your toes to the top of your head.  Love God so much that you feel as though your heart will burst.  Love God so much that the love spills over and splashes everywhere and on everyone else, including yourself.  Because God already loves you that much.

So love yourself.  Even when you do miserably at keeping up with the laundry or getting a decent meal on the table for dinner or calling your  mother or getting those hedges trimmed or passing algebra or remembering your brother’s birthday.  Love yourself.  After all, God does.  Jesus doesn’t say, love your neighbor.  He says, love your neighbor as yourself.  I think Jesus wants us to realize that we are indeed esteemed by God, that Love (capital L) loves us, and we ought to treat ourselves as a favored child or prized possession.[2]

That extra love, the love that spills over, use that on the people around you.  The grumpy barista at Coyote Coffee?  Love her.  Your smart-aleck kids?  Love them.  The guy who cuts you off in traffic?  Him, too.  Love them all.

All that love?  It’s a natural consequence of loving God.  “If one does not love God, one has no overriding reason for following the law.”[3]  We love God in response to God’s love for us.  But those neighbors?  Well, that’s different.  We are called to “love our neighbor even when our neighbor refuses to reciprocate.  Indeed, in God’s kingdom agapē is a love that is due even one’s enemy.”[4]

I think our Jewish brothers and sisters are onto something in following the Mosaic call to teach, speak, and live with the words of the Shema.  In Deuteronomy the people are told, “Recite [these words] to your children, and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:7).  “The words ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ become in the end less a command than a promise.  And the promise is that, yes, on the weary feet of faith and the fragile wings of hope, we will come to love [God] at last as from the first [God] has loved us. … And, loving [God], we will come at last to love each other too.”[5]

“Those who love God with every aspect of their being, and who love their neighbors as much as they love themselves, will not neglect the Torah with regard to either God or humanity.”[6]  Loving God, we will find ourselves longing to come into God’s presence, to worship in God’s house.  Loving God, we will find ourselves enabled to love the neighbors around us – even those who are irksome or unwanted or unlovable.  Loving God, we will find ourselves drawn to acts of service, to ways of kindness, to paths of peace – to all of those means of stewardship that otherwise seem so impossible.

And when we grow weak, Jesus calls us back to his table, where he feeds us yet again.  To this table, where we are nourished in the love of Christ and bathed in the love of God.  To this great feast, where we are promised we shall never go hungry again.

[1] Ron Hansen, “What’s So Golden About the Golden Rule?” Journey with Jesus, November 4, 2018

[2] Ibid.

[3] A.K.M. Adam, Feasting on the Word B/4, 263

[4] Victor McCracken, Feasting on the Word B/4, 262

[5] Frederick Buechner, “Love,” A Room Called Remember

[6] Adam, 265

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