Back to Basics

Just for fun, with the help of Google, I did a search on the World Wide Web for the word “love.” I found there were at least 54,700,000 sites, well ahead of “hate,” with 6,400,000. “All You Need Is Love” was a stunning Beatles’ hit in 1967, and the Centrum Silver set is lulled by Perry Como’s “Love Makes the World Go Round.” In today’s Gospel Jesus tells us that the “whole law and the prophets” depend on the commands to love God “with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind” and “your neighbor as yourself.” Today’s readings make a fine prelude to the coming celebrations of All Saints and All Souls, who truly loved God and neighbor.

 

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In hearing Jesus’ word, we are listening to the voice of Jesus the Jewish teacher, who cites texts from Dt. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18. Nor is Jesus unique in summarizing the Law by two central commands. The great Rabbi Hillel, when challenged to recite the whole Torah standing on one foot, replied: “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Law. The rest is commentary” (Babylonian Talmud). And the first-century Jewish teacher Philo affirmed that love of God and neighbor fulfill the whole Law. Loving the neighbor as oneself does not mean that love of others cannot exist without healthy self love, but that one must place oneself in the situation of the neighbor, as illustrated by the reading from Exodus.

While exhortations to love the neighbor appear frequently in the New Testament, surprisingly there are few commands to love God. That this should even be a command seems puzzling and difficult. Love is spontaneous and free. How can it be commanded? God does not really need our service, nor is God changed by our love as is a neighbor or loved one. God is also absolute mystery, and it is difficult really to love what we do not know. Often the command to love God is collapsed into service of neighbor. Christians are much more at ease speaking of following God’s will, serving God or praying to God in hope and faith.

Though we see in a glass darkly, profound human love for another offers an image of love of God. I have seen people after 50 or 60 years of marriage content to sit quietly in each other’s presence, yet quickly upset if the spouse returns home later than expected, even if tardy by only an hour. Behind such silent presence lie decades of knowledge, care and trials borne together. It is also an act of gratitude for years of mutual commitment. Love of God is like this. Often it is best expressed in simply sitting and quietly realizing how God has been a partner in every aspect of life. Biblical love of God is gratitude and remembrance for what God has done, rather than a project of what we do for God.

Hymns of praise and thanksgiving permeate the Psalms, and great figures of biblical thought are called “friends of God.” The Beatles had it right: “All You Need Is Love.”

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