Jesus taught us to love. Most everyone in the Christianized West ‘knows’ this. This is seemingly so obvious that it has approached the level of a cliche. The nature of cliches are such that what is understood by cliches are so trite and minimal that we can use the cliche in variety of ways to get it to say whatever we want to. Offhand, I can think of a few ways Jesus’s “call to love” is used: to justify specific social and/or political arrangements, to shield people from judgment, to baptize romantic and sexual relationships and leave them with a shiny veneer of spirituality, as a moral exhortation people to overlook dividing issues so we can all just get along, as a reductive ethical outlook that eschews any rules and can best be expressed by the lyrics of “All You Need is Love” in the Beatles’ popular song. Really, “Jesus calls us to love” was a meme where we can insert anything into it before the meme culture of the internet existed. As with all memes and cliches, everyone knows them but they increasingly lose their original meaning. Memes and cliches are used to mean whatever you want them to mean.
As a consequence, when we approach the passages in the Synoptic Gospels that talk about the most important commandment, such as Matthew 22:35-40, we tend to overlook the specifics of the words. We glaze over the
The love of God and the love of neighbor are different – Jesus didn’t say “love everyone, God
The nature of these two loves are specified – Jesus didn’t say “love,” but this quotations from the Torah expressed the specific shape and nature of these loves. The love of God was something that was all-encompassing of the person, impacting the various zone of their life. The love of neighbor is said to be “as yourself,” which in its original context in Leviticus 19:17-18 isn’t about “love yourself so that you can love others” or even “treat them as would treat yourself”1 but rather in recognizing that we are connected to our neighbor, so we should reprove neighbors for wrongs done, giving them a chance to address problems, rather than hate them and act with vengeance; what happens to them also impacts us. In other words, the love of God is rooted in being all-encompassing of our life and the love of neighbor was rooted in recognizing and maintaining our connectedness.
So, if your love for God is a mild appreciation that leads you into occasional forays of spiritual or religious practices that are easy and convenient for you and your lifestyle, you aren’t following the first commandment. If your love for another is selective that instead of speaking truth to them you would seek to hurt them, you are failing that commandment, so a culture that fears being “judgmental” and thus never speaks up for fear of unsettling other people’s feelings are not actually following the Torah commandment to love that Jesus references.
I don’t express these two potential ways of failure to be condemning and shaming if what I said is true of you, but only to point out that you have yet to really reach the type of loves that Jesus calls for.
Love is not all you need – Jesus was not answering the question “What do we need to to be a moral person?” Jesus was answering the question “Which commandment in the Torah is the greatest?” The question is not about setting out the boundaries and limits of all ethics. Nor is the question about defining exhaustive ethical and moral knowledge. It is specific to what, of the many commandments of the Torah has the highest place and prominence. The question assumes all the commandments should be followed, not just the most important ones, and Jesus doesn’t reject this assumption but his statement “On these two commandments hang all the Torah and the prophets” presumes the rest of the commandments should also be following, but that they derive their force and application from the two greatest commandments.
Love is not about ethics – The topic was about commandments. While we in the West with the diffusion of governmental power and regulation into our personal lives and the increasing awareness of our obligations to society, we are inclined to see prescriptive pronouncements as being about right and wrong in some moral or ethical framework. But t
Now, there is no reason to expect the average reader, or event an expert reader, of the Bible to pick up all of these various nuances and particularities. When I first read these passages, I didn’t pick up on all them. In fact, a couple of these observations I made myself as I was studying and reflecting in writing this blog post. These are not things you will just automatically know.
But, the problem is how our reading of the Bible is
At the core of the problem is this deep, underlying assumption: the Scriptures are meant to convey specific ideas to me that come from decoding the passages rightly. Therefore, once we get the right ideas, the Scriptures function more like a rule-book that we used to justify and legitimate these ideas against oppositional claims, but it is the knowledge and ideas that we derive that are actually the most important thing. Then, having obtaining mastery of the ideas, the
This pattern even effects those of us who do try to dig deeper. Whenever we dig deeper and we discover new ideas and meaning that we had not previously unearthed, we can be inclined to say “The Bible is always teaching us and giving us more and more.” This is often said with a hint of Spirituality behind
Overlooking the nuances of Biblical passages is going to happen to all of
Furthermore, the way we direct our attention in our reading will be directed towards the ideas and meanings we already find significant and important. Angry about some form of political injustice? Well, you can read Jesus’ words about love as a justification for your political proposals. Tired of feeling looked down upon for how you treat others? Go to Jesus words about not judging others. Frustrated that people don’t think like you do on some important topic? Find that passage that you use to support your doctrinal view. But we won’t necessarily try to read deeper to see if these passages really are addressing the ideas and meanings we have, but we assume that they are vehicles of these specific ideas.
To get philosophical for a minute, this isn’t an issue of saying there is no meaning in the text in the first place. While I am influenced by post-modernity in the sense that I don’t think texts in and of themselves have meanings but that we assign meanings, I do think texts are products of causal-forces (including the witnessing of specific events and the inspiration of God when it comes to the Scriptures) which we should seek to reconstruct ourselves through interpretation so that we can understand those causal-forces for ourselves. But when I derive some meaning, it doesn’t mean I have exhausted the text, but that I am on the way towards reconstruction. And, if I believe the Scriptures are, in some manner, inspired by God and if I seek to love God with all that I am, I should seek to go deeper and with greater specificity so that through my interpretation, I am coming to a deeper understanding that can align my heart and mind to God more and more. While specific meanings and ideas are useful ways that my thinking, feelings, and actions are formed and directed by this act of reconstructive interpretation, the Scriptures are for me sought as a way to attune myself to the heart and will of God in a deeper fashion through various, multitudinous ways. If we think a specific set of abstract ideas and meanings we derive from reading is all we need, if we simply employ these abstract ideas and meanings for the concerns that we have, we short-circuit the process of deepening, more pervasive understanding that impacts the whole of who we are.
So, I would make an appeal from the greatest commandment to our hermeneutical style: if you want to love God with your whole person and being, don’t read the Bible simply to get useful ideas, meanings, doctrines, laws, etc. Those may emerge, but don’t stop there; and challenge what ideas, meanings, doctrines, and laws you derive in your mind by going deeper into those specific passages and wider by looking deeply at other passages to see if they are