Monday, January 08, 2007

One command or two?

Loving God and neighbour

      When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
      “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
      He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

- Matt 22.34-40 (cf. Mark 12.28-34)

I used to think love was a zero-sum game. To love God more, I had to love other things less. To love any created thing too much was to threaten my first priority of loving God. And so all horizontal loves had to be kept partial, conditional, hedged by constant vigilence, lest I get too attached to a secondary good and so distracted from the highest good.

But Jesus' affirmation of the first and greatest commandment from Deuteronomy 6.5 will not allow such an understanding. God is not simply to be loved with more of my heart than anything else, but with all. There can be no love, no loyalty, no joy, no delight and affection for anything but God. This command is totalising. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether love can be commanded at all, this is a shock to human pride. No longer can I feel quietly confident of having more or less kept God number one, and kept other things back down at least as far as second in my affections. This is a command I cannot keep without a new heart, undivided and unalloyed.

This command makes Christianity an offense, for the God of which Jesus speaks is not any old deity according to how we might prefer to imagine a higher power. He is speaking of the one he calls 'Father'. The one his people identified as Yahweh, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. It is this God that Jesus demands we love with all that we are: heart, soul, mind and strength. Not four different kinds of love, but a fourfold repetition of all of us.

But, and this is crucial, Jesus doesn't stop there. Incredibly, after the universe that is the first and greatest command, he says that there is a second. What room is left? What love is still available? What has not been claimed and owned for all time by the first commandment? This second commandment he says is 'like' the first. Like in what way? "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Like the first, it is taken from Israel's Law (Torah), this time from Leviticus 19.18. Like the first, it is demanding and difficult: how can I be as concerned for the needs of one whom I don't always see, whose thoughts and needs I often don't know? But I'm not sure that this is how the second command is like the first.

I wonder whether it is like the first because it is a translation of it, a paraphrase, an explanation, a gloss? I love God not in competition with loving our neighbour, but precisely by loving my neighbour. In 1 John 4.20 we read Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The visible manifestation of our love of an invisible God is to love what we can see. Wholeheartedly. The one love embraces both objects simultaneously. Love is not a zero sum game. The commands do not collapse into one, but they are mutually interpreting. I am to love my neighbour more in order to grow in love for God. And the converse is also true: unless I am also loving this God, then I am not really loving my neighbour.
Ten points for the country in which the original artwork is located.
Some readers may have been confused by the final paragraph of my previous post Thanks. It was missing a link to Ben Myers, which is now fixed.

16 comments:

Joanna said...

Wow Byron, once again, very stimulating thoughts on offer here.

This understanding of the passage encourages me heartily to love others in a practical way, knowing that I am pleasing the God who loves them.

And I'm glad to have that encouragement, because I find it a struggle to understand and display love for my Father. I know that it must be more than emotion, but are dry religious exercises (such as the endless repetition of certain prayers) really the only suitable replacement?

It is helpful to know that in expressing love for others, I am showing my love for God.

Andrew said...

Thanks Byron.

On other thing I think is remarkable about this commandment is the function it plays within Israel's Law. At the heart of the Torah stands this command to love God, a command that encompasses everything about the rest of the Torah and gives it meaning, but also surpasses it and fundamentally alters its character. A command to love is a command that cannot be kept as a command, but which calls Israel to a relationship which is deeper than that of command-obedience. It was a command that meant Israel would innevitably need, as you point out, a new heart.

peter j said...

Is the sculpture in the New York Museum of Modern Art? Country = USA.

Andrew said...

Did I see this sculpture in the holocaust museum in Berlin? (Germany)

byron said...

Sorry Andrew, Pete was right. Ten points.

byron said...

Andrew - yes, the inevitability of moving beyond mere command. Indeed, even as it originally stands, it was both command and promise, since it is not an imperative (i.e. "love the LORD your God" - contra NIV), but a future ("you will love the LORD your God" - technically, it is a Hebrew imperfect, which can function as either).

h. goldsmith said...

I think there's a connection also to James' "I will show you my faith by my works." Love for God and faith in God are, in some ways, unquantifiable, unmeasureable - and love for our neighbor, expressed in works of charity, is the fruit which proves the existence of the tree. If that makes sense.

byron said...

Joanna - I know that it must be more than emotion, but are dry religious exercises (such as the endless repetition of certain prayers) really the only suitable replacement?
This is an important question. And I think expanding our understanding of what is included in loving God (i.e. all of life!) is quite liberating. It is not just 'spiritual' things (prayer, bible reading, devotional times, services) that are Spiritual.

byron said...

h.goldsmith - yes good point. I think this is what John 4.20 is getting at. And also Jesus in John 15.10-12 seems to be saying something similar: "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Faher's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you." The commandment that we're to keep in order to abide in his love (and the love of the Father) is the command to love one another. And this is the way of joy.

Rachel said...

great post!

do i get any points for stating the obvious- that the sclpture is a Giacommetti...?

KathrynTherese said...

Byron, as usual, you are thinking about all the right stuff.
And I think you are right in saying that we love God by loving our neighbor, because our neighbor is made in God’s image and because “whatever you do to the least of these,” you do to God himself. Our energies may seem to be focused in two directions, until we come to see that God is in all, that in Christ God and the cosmic reality have become one. Until we see that, our vision is divided. Once we know the miracle of the Word-made-flesh, we can set our eyes upon God and the world at the same time and know that he is present in our daily realities, and in each of us.

Your quote from John 15 is Christ’s mandate, his new commandment, the precise way in which he came “not to abolish, but to fulfill” the law (Mt 5.17).

In the OT, God only commanded us to love in the best way we could possibly know: by nature, we love and preserve ourselves, and so God commands us to love others as much as we love ourselves.

But Christ came to demonstrate how God loves, and then he is able to say, “love one another as I have loved you.” He sets aside his glory, bends low as a servant to wash the feet of his disciples (even the one he knew would soon betray him) and then he gets up and says, “Love looks like this. This is how you love and serve one another.”

Divine love manifests itself in divine kenosis, the humble self-sacrificing love which characterized all that Jesus said and did.He came, not to rid the world of evil by immediately destroying all evildoers, but rather to reveal the humble love of God and thus attract sinners to repentance, so they freely abandon their sin, as opposed to “acting good” as a reaction to intimidating threats. He invites us to move beyond ourselves and live for love, loving both God and neighbor with all we’ve got.

For if God is not loved freely, He is not loved at all.

(oops, I'm blathering again... skulking off to the corner to read quietly again...)

The Miner said...

It certainly is a solid read of the greatest commandment(s). However, I think it does open itself to a certain danger, which is pantheism. There is a reason why Jesus distinguishes the commandments even while he says that the second is "like" the first. There is also a reason why there is a first and a second, not just two equal commandments.

The reasoning behind this is that to love one's neighbor clearly is a way of demonstrating love to the father, but it is not synonymous with loving God. God has her own inherent personhood, separate from creation, which is worthy of love on it's own. To fail to love God for godself, even as you succeed at times in loving your neighbor, is to fall into the risk you described of idolatry.

As you pointed out, this is not a zero sum game. You do not divide your loves between God and neighbor, but you give it ALL to God which INCLUDES loving your neighbor. In fact, love only increases as you give it away rather than diminishing. So loving God doesn't diminish your capacity to love neighbor, but enhances it and vice versa.

Simon Elliott said...

Byron great thoughts...
I think that in loving God I will love my neighbour, that is how I can often express my love for God, not because God is in my neighbours, but becasue God is my motivation to love others. THat is to love neighbours as myself I think I need to do it motivated by love for God rather than love for me.

Loving neighbors is not as difficult in my opinion as loving them as yourself. Because the latter cannot be done with a wrong motivation the former can.
Anyway you keep me thinking Byron.
Simon.

charlescameron said...

Love for God and our neighbour are not to compete with each other. We are called to love both. There's an interesting statement in 1 John 4:19 - 'We love because he first loved us'. We are inclined to add the word, 'Him' - 'We love Him ... '. It's not there. It is included - but not to the exclusion of love for our neighbour (vs. 20-21). Our response to God's love consists of both love for God and love for one another.

Jonathan said...

The fact that our love for God and for our neighbours are not in competition with each other and in fact are very closely linked is very important. However, is the zero-sum language Jesus uses in Luke 14:26 and Luke 16:13 simply talking about a different sort of thing, or is it reflecting the difference between "with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "as yourself". To love God with all of our being is to recognise his place as creator and king, but our love for others, as ourself, must be not "partial" as in incomplete, but still only a part of our love for God and all his creation. Love for created beings outside love for the creator is sure to be misguided and "cancerous".

byron said...

So many thoughtful replies - so little time to respond at the moment. I think I agree with most of what most people have said.

Alric - yes, I needed to be more careful about avoiding pantheism. Loving neighbour is not strictly identical with loving God, a point also well made by Jonathan, when he points to the negative limits of a kind of 'love' for creation that does come into destructive competition with love for God.

Kathryntherese - until we come to see that God is in all, that in Christ God and the cosmic reality have become one. I'd love to know if you agree with Alric's (=The Miner) point about pantheism, since this sentence seemed to get close to affirming it. Also, while I agree that Christ came to show what Paul called 'a more excellent way' (1 Cor 12.30), the way of love, I wouldn't want to say that love in the OT was merely natural. Even our ability to love ourselves comes from God. However, I do agree that the new covenant brings something new. While this is partially the example of Christ (which is also important), even more important is the indwelling of the Spirit to give us a new heart of flesh and write the Law of Christ on our hearts.

Simon and Charlescameron - thanks, great points. This is such a rich theme and I obviously only just scratched the surface.