On “Love” and the Greatest Commandments

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy might, this is the first and greatest commandment and the second is like unto it, that thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.  – Matthew 22:37-39 & Mark 12:30-31

These days, one hears a great deal about ‘love’.  The words’ constant use in television programmes, on radio, in the newspapers, on the internet and so forth.  Everywhere one goes, one hears the term ‘I love you’!  What, however, really is love and just how are we to interpret this, the greatest commandment of all?

In order to understand the meaning of ‘Love’ we need look no further than Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which he describes love as:

“Patient and kind, knowing neither envy nor jealousy, never forward or self-satisfied, nor boastful and conceited” – 1 Corinthians 13:4

Love, therefore, may be described as something to be held in the highest esteem, a virtue that surpasses all others.  From Saint Paul’s description, it becomes apparent that ‘Love’, if understood in its proper context, is about giving without expectation of any reward.  Giving, not merely some trifle or material object, but, ones’ very all, that is to say, giving ones’ whole self (body, soul and mind), willingly, to another.  Love is not so much a word as an act – an act of unselfish goodness – done and given for the sake of another without any desire of receiving something in return.  Love is not to be equated with lust or infatuation, that seek only self-gratification, for true love (and that is our only concern) transcends the realms of physicality and sexuality, becoming something truly spiritual and even greater still it can becomes a state-of-being.  It is for this reason that ‘Love’ is the only thing God asks us for – being pure and utterly selfless, it is the only thing worthy enough to render unto God.  Even yet, this command, this requirement, is wholly unselfish since God only requests what He has already given – all love comes from God and all love must return to God – for “God is Love” – 1 John 4:8  Furthermore, Gods’ love is unconditional for although he wants us to love Him, He does not make us love Him.  Saint or sinner, God gives His love equally to all and it is our choice whether to return that love.  We should, however, remember that we give nothing to God that He has not already given to us – cf. Job 41:10-11 & Romans 11:35-36

What precisely does Jesus mean, however, when he says that one must love God with all ones’ ‘heart’, ‘soul’ and ‘might’?

To understand, one needs to realize that Jesus is here quoting from Mosaic Law – cf. Deuteronomy 6:5   That verse formed part of what is known as the Shema, the basic and essential creed of Judaism.  Put simply, it means that one must love God totally and unreservedly – ones’ love for Him should dominate ones’ emotions; it should direct ones’ thoughts and it should be the dynamism of ones’ actions.  Christianity consists in loving God and God desires only pure and selfless love, that is, the commitment of life itself to God.

Following on from this is the Second Great Commandment that “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”.  Two questions arise – the first; how should one love ones’ neighbour? – the second, who is ones’ neighbour?

Some Christians are of the opinion that ‘to love ones’ neighbour’ simply means to wish them no harm.  This, however, falls very short of what is envisaged by the Second Great Commandment.  Ones’ love for fellow man must be no less than genuine, sincere, and selfless love; in short, it must be the same love as that rendered unto God.  Many would argue that this asks too much – how, for example, is one to love a murderer or a thief?  The answer is quite simple – mankind is made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27) and unless one is capable of loving man, who is seen, how can one possibly love God who is unseen?  Regardless of the wrong a man does, he remains a human being and in virtue of that, one is required to love him.  By all means, one may (and, indeed, must) hate the sin, but the sinner one must love – for only by showing true love to those who have erred is there any possibility of restoring them to the path of righteousness.  This does not mean one ought to stand in judgement of others; nor does it give one the right to condemn those whom one believes to be engaging in sin.  On the contrary, love demands that one refrain from passing judgement – the only valid Christian solution to correcting sin is showing, by example, that there is an alternative way of living – above all else one has a moral duty to impart the knowledge, through action, that Gods’ love is so great that He readily and freely forgives sin, however heinous in the eyes of the world, Gods’ forgiveness is absolute; the only condition imposed by God is that the sinner approach Him with an humble and contrite heart.  Furthermore, love demands mans’ forgiveness be nothing less than absolute; just as Gods’ forgiveness is absolute.  All of this may sound daunting – impossible to adhere to – yet it is what is required of all Christians.  Jesus did not promise that it would be easy to follow Him, on the contrary He warned His disciples that they shall be “hated by all nations” on account of His name – Matthew 24:9-10   Down through the centuries, Ritual, in all its pomp and glory, has been allowed to take the place of Love.  Elaborate churches and cathedrals stand as a monument to mans’ selfishness – were these built out of love for God or to feed the ego of man?  Does God want these vast structures, skilfully created, while many of His children perish from cold, hunger or thirst?  Did not Jesus command His followers to “sell all you possess and give the money to the poor”? – Luke 18:22    The time has now come for those who call themselves Christian to re-evaluate what they believe!  It is not the case that worship has become a matter of the Church building instead of a matter of Christian living?  Have Christians conveniently ignored the truth behind the parable of The Good Samaritan – the priest and the levite could pass by the wounded traveller because they were eager to carry on the with the ritual of the temple – ritual, buildings, material things, these have become more important than humanity and have certainly replaced love as the epicentre of Christian life.

Who, then, is ones’ Neighbour?  Jesus is quoting from Leviticus 19:18 “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.  In its original context it has to do with mans’ fellow-Jew and would not have included the Gentiles (or non-Jews), who were considered detestable.  Jesus, however, quoted the passage of Scripture without qualification – in other words, He did not limit the boundaries of who ones’ neighbour is.  This is a perfect example of how Jesus took an old law and filled it new meaning.  Ones’ neighbour, therefore, is every human being, regardless of race, creed, nationality, gender, sexuality or age.  Nobody may be excluded; for to exclude a single person is an affront to the Second Great Commandment and, thereby, an affront to God.  Jesus, throughout the Gospels, again and again emphasizes the  point: “Love thine enemies and do good to those that hate you” – Matthew 5:44    In Jesus’ understanding, hatred, ill-will and bitterness were unnecessary emotions that lead only to self-destruction – to follow Him was to rise above worldly strife and embrace, in all its’ fullness, His Way¹  of Love, Faith and Hope.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the Christian Faith centres upon loving God and fellow men.  It is the measure of that Love, however, that determines whether one is truly Christian.  For far too long, love has been reduced to an empty formula, not merely by the secular world but also by the organized religion.  Times are changing at an alarming rate – what once seemed eternal and re-assuring has been completely altered (or eradicated).  Despite this and despite the ever-evolving complexities of human life, the one thing that has not changed is Jesus’ Way of Love.  Being a Christian in the 21st century is no longer a simple case of belonging to one denomination or another – it is about taking personal responsibility for ones’ own thoughts, words, and actions.  Perhaps it is time for each one of us to examine our lives and ascertain just where we fit into Jesus’ Way of Salvation.  Only through adoption of the principle of “Loving God and Man as oneself” is it possible to, honestly and sincerely, consider oneself an Apostle of Jesus Christ.

¹ The word “Way” refers to the Church, that is, the people of God who have brought out of darkness and are enlightened by the teachings of Jesus Christ.  The original Greek word “ekklesia” meant much more than (A) a building or (B) an organization.  The direct translation of the word “ekklesia” is “the called-out ones”.  Hence, when Christ says to Peter: “On this rock I shall build my ‘ekklesia’”, He is actually saying: “on this rock I shall build up my assembly”.  Conversely, the Greek word for ‘Church’ is ‘Kuriakos’.