A few days ago, I happened upon a facebook conversation with a friend of mine, James-Michael Smith, about the relationship of Scripture and love. He posted the
Embedded in this is the cliche that “Jesus taught us to love.” I say cliche because while it is true at one level, what is misunderstood is that Jesus didn’t simply teach people to love, but challenged the very definitions people used when it came to love, both in what it means to love and who is it we are to love.1 But in common discourse, it is assumed that we already got the meaning of love down, but that we simply need to learn to show love to people. We are inclined to assume we know and that our problem is merely an emotional and behavioral problem.
Then, as we join together the love-cliche with an assumption we know what love is, we read the words of Jesus about the two most important commandments and say “See! Jesus says we should love! Let’s do it!” We already understand what it is to love, so
But allow me to draw a personal analogy that illustrates the fundamental problem in this mindset. At the age of 34 and as the result of trauma in my life, I have never been in a long-term romantic relationship. While I have had feelings at various points in time for women and gone on plenty of dates, nothing has ever materialized. As a
So, imagine the folly that would come from me giving dating or marital advice. Now, I could probably give advice on dealing with conflicts or maybe addressing a specific critical event in people’s lives. I could probably even tell you that there are just some bad ideas you shouldn’t try. But, it would be folly for me to presume to give advice as if I some love guru, who has mastered the art. Why? Because I don’t actually understand romantic love, even if I recognize it f
This very mistaken mentality is what I would suggest undergirds much of the rhetoric that people use regarding Jesus. Jesus says to love, and so the assumption is that we understand all of that so that a) we don’t need the rest of the laws and b) are fit to be able to guide other people in what it means to love. The criticism is rooted in what Jesus warned about judgment in Matthew 7, where people try to take out the specks in other people’s eyes, acting as if they can see while they have a plank blinding them from actually seeing.
I cite as one target of this criticism the progressive political culture in America and the Church, including within progressive Christianity, which while it has noble intentions about love and justice has failed to truly comprehend love and justice, so that through their incompetency they contribute to the very hatred and injustice they seek to fight against. They may recognize love and justice, but I would suggest there is little comprehension. For instance, they recognize the power that Martin Luther King Jr. had to create change for movements towards justice, but they fail to comprehend the nature of the power of MLK’s resistance. Nor is it readily understand that MLK was a deeply flawed person in other areas like plagiarism and accusations of adultery, even while he was exemplary in pursuing justice. And so, people imitate the methods of MLK’s non-violent resistance because they recognize its power, but not comprehending the power stemming from how you use the methods nor the potential downfalls of even this way of trying to achieve a goal, because even MLK did not have perfect comprehension
My point: recognition without comprehension leads to something branded as “love” and “justice” but is commonly reduced to the lowest common denominator. How then do we move beyond recognition to comprehension? We learn, which to happens entails that we recognize our own ignorance, if not even culpability. We call this repentance.
But then, the next step entails finding and recognizing there is someone we can learn from who can treat our ignorance, our lack of recognition. But this puts us in a particular bind. If we truly don’t know and comprehend, how can we know and recognize those who do know and comprehend? Our ignorance means we don’t have the right criteria in our minds to know who can truly dispel our ignorance.
This is where recognition comes in to play: we can recognize from the whole of someone that they do seem to know and comprehend in a way that we ourselves can not analyze and articulate ourselves. We can call this faith/trust, where we place our hands into someone that we ourselves neither have perfect comprehension of nor control over. So when the crowds see Jesus as teaching with an authority that the Pharisees and scribes did not have, you see this taking place.
Of course, this faith may be shallow or deep, with genuine or duplicitous motives. For instance, the Gospel of John notes that there were people who believed in Jesus that Jesus did not entrust himself to because he saw who they really were (John 2:24-25). So, while faith is certainly a necessary starting point in the journey to move towards the comprehension of love, it isn’t sufficient. Jesus didn’t teach everyone who came to Him, which is a hard truth to accept to our modern ears as our society has made Jesus the patron saint of belonging and inclusion.
Then, in the Gospel of John, we note that in the time before he goes to his death, Jesus brings together his disciples for what might be said to amount to a farewell address. Jesus has taken his disciples as they followed him, teaching them, showing them
Therein lies the whole point of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples. These were Jews, who knew the Torah to some degree or another, including the commandments to love God and to love neighbor. But this commandment isn’t an old commandment, but a new one that goes beyond the letter of the Torah. The commandment to love one’s neighbor in
So, Jesus teaches his disciples a new commandment, because what the Torah provided didn’t directly spell out to the letter. This mentality undergirds Jesus’ usage of the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. There were the commandments of the Torah that many people were trying to fulfill but for ulterior motives and purposes,
But notice that even here, there is a gap between the meaning of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount regarding love and then Jesus’ own words to his disciples in John 15. Even in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus hasn’t fully made everything known. Why? Because the people weren’t ready to receive and comprehend it. This is why immediately after defining the greater form of love is sacrificing one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus tells his disciples that they are no longer servants but friends in John 15:15. Now they have the capacity to comprehend what Jesus is doing, so they can do what Jesus’ commands to love one another as He loved them. Their whole discipleship under the guiding hand of Jesus saw them as learners, who could recognize at times but failed to comprehend. But now, Jesus saw them as friends because he made what he heard from His Father known to them.
In other words, the disciples at the beginning of their journey did not comprehend God’s type of love, even if they were capable of recognizing it. They themselves had to learn what it meant to love as God loves before they themselves would be commanded to love in the way God loves. Their pre-discipleship days of hearing the Torah had not provided
Which leads me to one of my two main points here: you have to learn what God’s type of love is before you can tell others what it means to love
Which leads me to my second point: you learn to love through discipleship. Discipleship is not, however, simply a matter of information transfer through a linguistic medium such as spoken or written language. It
This is where the Torah for the Jews and then all of the Scriptures for us as Christians
So, while we can say to some degree, that the picture above has an element of truth to it, it is also fundamentally mistaken. Yes, the love of God and the love of neighbor is the commandments above all other commandments, which should be honored and followed if there are ever circumstances where another commandment would call for a contradictory action, such as loving one’s neighbor through healing and the commandment to obey the Sabbath. But it is false to say that love is the meaning of the Sabbath
For the Torah and the Old Testament, you don’t grow to comprehend loving God without putting the God’s instruction into practice. And so it is for us as Christians. Even though we don’t follow Torah today in a strict legalistic manner because the New Testament suggests ultimate purpose of the the Torah was to recognize Jesus, rather than provide full comprehension, in a similar manner we recognize that we don’t comprehend Jesus’ type of love until we put into practice what Jesus put into practice, including Jesus’ own pattern of life that was lived in obedience to Torah (so, when we seek to imitate Jesus, we are seeking what will fulfill God’s intentions for the Torah). This starts, however, with the recognition of our own ignorance and culpability that then places our trust in Jesus as one whose guidance and teaching, when put into practice, will lead to comprehension (and then as followers also recognizing the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this).
The passage of Scripture that echoes it best is one that one of my favorite professors from seminary who had a huge influence on me, Dr. Joseph
For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ
Love is the end result of one’s discipleship, not the starting point. Along similar lines, In Romans 5:1-5, Paul traces the journey through the starting virtue of faith, providing justification, leading to hope through endurance, which in the exercising of hope culminates into the pouring of God’s love into our own hearts through leading of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, you call