So here Jesus recalls the Pharisees to the foundations of their Jewish faith; to the opening of the Schema, the oldest fixed prayer of Judaism recited every day and based on the summary of the Torah, the law in Deuteronomy 6:5. He could not have returned a more orthodox answer if he had tried. We could read this final question as if they were giving him a chance. The Pharisees, who had their own internal disputes with the Sadducees, had heard that he had returned a good answer to the Sadducees on the question of marriage and the resurrection and I suspect that a few of them were thinking, ‘perhaps this guy is on our side after all.’ And Jesus gives an answer to their question with which they could not possibly argue - all agreed that this was the central teaching - love; love of God, love of neighbour, love of self. Of course this remains the central teaching, not only in Judaism and Christianity, but across all the great world faiths, this ‘golden rule’ of love of God and love of neighbour, love of true self is asserted...
So let’s think about it a bit more. If Jesus had stopped at the first great commandment, love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, there would have been less problem. Everyone would have agreed. Of course, we would continue to argue about God, and about how to show love for God, but on that we might agree to differ.
It is when it comes to the second part of this teaching that things get really messy. First of all Jesus makes it very clear that this second commandment is of equal importance to the first. Indeed it would be reasonable to say that the way to love God runs through our neighbours. St Paul agrees, saying in Galatians 5:14 ‘the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself”.
A smart lawyer as we all remember asked Jesus who their neighbour was, and received in response the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story if ever there was one about the overcoming of our dualistic preconceptions and an encouragement to embrace as our own the person we see as other, different and hostile.
So we are to love our neighbour. Often we conceive of this in Christian practice as beginning with those closest to us, our family and friends, and rippling out in concentric circles to work colleagues, those on the outer of our society and ultimately even to our perceived enemies. This is not at all a bad methodology and can help us increase our sense of compassion and connectedness, especially if we engage with it intentionally, spending part of our prayer time each day consciously lifting these different groupings into the light and love of God. This is a good practice.
However this second great commandment does not stop there. It says we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. Now I used to think that just meant that we had to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the other person- walk a mile in their mocassins, increase our empathy and that kind of thing. It was a bit more of a stretch when I realised that it also meant that I had to show myself some love as well, and that in fact God does not love six billion people minus one, myself, but actually me too. We are to love our neighbour as ourself, not more than ourselves. Christianity is not the religion of artificial martyrdom and self sacrifice in which we earn our place in heaven by our good works towards others. None of that!
However more recently I have begun to understand there is yet more. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself ’ What this actually invites us to do, is to break down the false division between myself and yourself. It invites us to see that we are not, in God, separate selves at all, but all one. I am not myself without you and you are not yourself without me. We are intimately part of one another, constantly touching, constantly part of the one body. We know at the scientific level that the molecules that make up our human bodies are in constant interchange with everything with which we come in contact. The surface of the skin is a permeable membrane. The air we breathe is being constantly recycled among us. What appears solid is in fact not so. We are not separate, we are all constantly part of one another and of God.
So to love others as myself involves a different way of being in the world. It is not that there are other people out there, separate from me, and I am to be nice to them, and when I am nice to them God will be pleased with me and I can feel good about myself - not that any of that is necessarily bad- rather we are to let go of needing to be ‘me’ or ‘you’ and simply enter into love, which is another way of saying enter into God, which is why the two commandments are essentially the same.
Loving in this way requires just as much attention, but less effort. It is the difference between clinging on and letting go. From infancy most of us are very good at clinging on - it is an excellent survival strategy. Jesus is saying, there is something more important than survival. Eternal life is about love and about finding ourselves in that wide, deep love of God that passes all knowledge and which we only discover when we let go of the need to impress, or be right, or be in control. When we let go of those things, and recognise ourselves in every other person, then our hearts fill with compassion and the commandments are fulfilled. As Gerard May says, in a passage often quoted, ‘as your attachment ceases to be your motivation, your actions will become reflections of compassion absolute’.
Of course we cannot do this by ourselves. Even the desire to love is a gift of God. However we can put ourselves prayerfully in the place where God is enabled to love in us and begin as Bernard of Clairvaux put it centuries ago, ‘to love ourselves for God’s sake.’ So may we love one another, for love is of God. Amen.
by Penny Jones, Sunday 29 October 2017