June 22nd Mark 12c revisited “How Can We live the Two Greatest Commandments?

Note:  Today, I feel the need to take a step back and look at part of yesterday’s text from a different angle.   Instead of a normal reflection, I’d like to make a few suggestions of how we try to live according to Christ’s two greatest commandments.   The commandments are quotes from the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

At the center of Gospel teaching, Jesus gives us the two great commandments:

Mark 12:28-31

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

When I was younger, I was bothered by the math of these two statements.  If I was supposed to love God with all of my hearts, soul, mind, and strength, what would there be left for loving others or caring for myself.  It reminded me of those old pep talks you would hear where a coach would say, “I want you to give me a hundred-and-ten percent.”  We get the idea, but we know that it isn’t something you can do:  You can’t give more than a hundred percent.

Another way of saying it would be, “hold nothing back.”  Love God with all you are.

It is hard to simply love someone by choice.   All sorts of superficial and deep things can cause us to like someone or admire them, but devotion requires something more.  We can choose to give friendship a chance to take root.  We can give others the opportunity to earn our trust, but it is foolhardy to trust someone who hasn’t earned a little trust already. 

Love is not something we generate on our own.  Love and trust rise from a relationship that feeds in some or many ways.  We love people who are good to us and bring us nurture, healing, and/or joy.   If a person is nearly constant in their good behavior, we develop trust in them.  Deep and abiding love also cares enough to repent of mistakes and forgives the mistakes of the other.

The exception to this pattern is a parent’s love for their children.  Babies are completely dependent on others and incapable of earning our trust or being good to us.  But we love them because we find joy and healing by being able to care for them without reservation.  We love them for who they are and who they become.  Our great affection for some children is part of our biology and culture, but we also love children because they allow us to become more generous, trustworthy, and kind.

When we are commanded by Jesus to love God, we are not expected to generate that love, but to love in reply to God.  The verse “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” starts with a command to hear.  Listen up!   We listen because something is being said.  We listen to hear a message.

So, the first step to obey the commandment to love God “with heart, soul, mind, and strength,” is to pay attention to the signs of love God has sent you.  We enter into the first great commandment by listening and using our other senses and memory to experience God’s love.  The first step is to give God credit for every positive thing that has ever come to you.  Instead of trying to generate love for God, we first consider all the proof that we have that God loves us.  If God had not begun the great wave of creation and creativity, you would have no experience of comfort, healing, good food, companionship, fun, humor, beauty, or any other good thing.  Yes, you would have also had no feelings of pain or loss, but most of our negative experiences are redeemed by healing, maturity, and compassion.

Life is hard, but it is worthwhile.  We learn to love God by learning to be thankful for every gift that comes to us. We might be tempted to ask why God allows so many bad things to happen, but that opens the door to asking why God allows so many good things to happen. Our simple answer for most of the bad things in the world is that God has given us free-will.  Since we can do good, we also can do bad.  And many of the things that are bad in our lives later led to new strength and new goodness.  In extreme cases we don’t need to put God on trial as much as we need to put ourselves and our culture on trial.

So, we will love God with our “all” because we are thankful.  Goodness comes to us and we try to sense and remember all the blessings that we let pass un-noticed.  We love God because we have plenty of signs that he loved us first.  We trust God because he has proven more trustworthy than most of the people we meet.  Jesus us to call God “Father” because God loved us like a loving parent before we could have done anything to earn that love.  God loves us without reserve, and therefore the first great commandments is not to love and trust God on our own, but to love and trust in response to all the goodness we have ever received.  The commandment is to love God as he loves us.

The second command is a little easier.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This assumes that we do love ourselves already and that we know how to care for our own needs.  There is an unspoken assumption that you don’t hate yourself but understand that you are a beloved child of God. 

How do we live the second great commandment?  We look for what is loveable in each person, especially if you have been ignoring any of their good traits.  Secondly, we try to see how they are worthy of our compassion and empathy.  If you are still struggling, concentrate on how they were once helpless children, and they have remained beloved children of God (even if they have done nothing to show that they know that God loves them).  It is important to keep people you love in your thoughts and prayers, but it is more important to pray for people you dislike or even hate.  You pray for good things to happen to your enemies and rivals, and you show thankfulness when good comes to them.  As time passes, you will find it easier and easier to pray for them until they are no longer hard to pray for or hard to love.

To love your neighbor does not mean the same things as approving of everything they do.  You may have to speak up to keep them from bullying someone or from other negative behavior.  If you see them putting themselves or others at risk, you may need to intervene, but you do it as someone who sees them as a child of God.  In extreme cases where a person is a danger to themselves or others, we can even support jail time or time in psychiatric care.  In the most extreme cases, we can even love our neighbor by keeping them jailed for life, but we keep praying for them and that they will receive the good that is coming to them daily.

So, briefly, this is the simple version:

The commandments:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

How?

-Pay attention to all the good things in your life.

-Give God credit for being the source of all the good you have experienced.

-Ponder, what you might be thankful for.

-Thank God and return his love.  Love God as he loves you, without reservation.

Then…

-Look for what is good in all your neighbors.

-Pray for all but especially your enemies, rivals, and the people who make you angry.

-Pray for all people and be thankful when good comes to them.

-Love people and protect them from hurting others or themselves.

-Show that same mercy and concern for yourself.

Once again..

“Love God as God loves you”

“Love neighbor as you love yourself”

“Love yourself because God loves you”

Question to Ponder:  Bryant McGill, a former nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, once wrote “There is no love without forgiveness and no forgiveness without love.”  Do you see such a powerful connection between love and forgiveness?

Blessings,

Pastor Rick