Q: What does the law of God require of us?
A: Christ teaches us that briefly, Matt 22:37-40, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. This is the first and the great commandment; and the second is like unto it, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
There’s really very little that I can say about this, other than “I agree” in a variety of different ways. Having done quite a bit of reading on the ‘new perspective’, I have changed my view somewhat on the nature of the law, which I sketched in part 3. But the law as it stands is best summarised as stated above.
Love is a tricky word in the English language, as it doesn’t always convey quite the senses that can be carried by the words in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek. In the quote above, the Greek word is Agapeo. The concordance I have describes it as “in the N[ew] T[estament] usually the active love of God for his Son and his people, and the active love his people are to have for God, each other and even enemies.” The idea seems to be that it is a very practical action; love is not merely some sort of fuzzy feeling. It’s not affection or fondness. Though that doesn’t mean it is devoid of emotion (see below).
What are we to love God with? The list nature as it appears strikes me as a piece of rhetoric which seems to say “everything”, only in a more poetic way. If we can provide love, hands-on, with all that we have, then we are getting somewhere close to what was intended. Yet the list of ways does prompt another thought: that people who have different personalities love in different ways.
For example, I am not a particularly emotional sort of person. Even though I tend to go to fairly charismatic churches, which are generally known for a higher than average level of emotional engagement, I remain much more of a thinker than anything else. So one might well say I love with my mind more than anything else. Tendencies to love in one way or another may attract people to certain kinds of churches. So those who have a more emotional reaction may lean towards the charismatic churches. In my experience, Anglicans tend to be better than most at loving with all their strength. i.e. very practically, as are the Salvation Army. In a similar vein, of the Quakers I have come across, they are always very thoughtful and are amongst the deepest thinkers I know; they embody very well the idea of loving God with all your mind. I try to learn from each of these not only to embody such love in myself but to encourage those in the church around me (both a local community and the digital community) to do likewise.
The other thing I might point out is the phrase “hang on”. The Greek word which appears in Matthew is kremannymi, a word which doesn’t come up very often in the new testament. When it does, it appears to have the same connotations as we have in our modern English. For example, in Acts 28:4, it describes a snake hanging off Paul’s hand after it bit him in Malta. What it does not seem to say is that “These two commandments encapsulate the law and the prophets.” So these are the foundation of a Judeo-christian ethic. How we live in this world is a complicated matter, living in different climates, cultures, political and economic systems, but if you peel back any individual or any community behaviour within that, we can ask, does it meet these two criteria?
Yet in this personal catechism, recall that I haven’t really defined God. I’m not convinced that trying to fit God into a neat little pigeonhole so it can be examined really works. So for now the commandment stands as an instruction to love something we don’t quite know or understand. Yet if we love our neighbours as ourselves, is that really so very different? If our neighbours ultimately encapsulate all those who live around us, then I have several million neighbours within a 10 mile radius. Can I possibly understand each of them individually or even as a collective? Of course, the two cases aren’t identical. I hope you get the general gist of the point.
I must admit that I am troubled at times by the phrase “as thyself”. What if someone has lost any and all self-respect, having replaced it with self-loathing? There is an implicit assumption that people will want to live to act in their own self-interests, therefore it is good and proper to act in the interests of others. If the first part is true, then there may be a case for arguing capitalism; it would certainly be indicative of an insight into an element of human nature that spans cultures and time. Or maybe it was an assumption that is commonly true but not universally. If so, what if a person hates themself tries to love others as they love themselves? Does it not then become a command to hate others? I know this is thinking at the extreme edge of some circumstances, but I think christianity should stretch far enough to be able to encapsulate such extremes. To say it another way, if we are to reflect God to the world, then if our love does not extend to its most extreme ends, does that mean that those who inhabit those spaces are beyond God’s love? To this, I would answer ‘no’, though that is a kind of love which is easier said than done. To fully grasp what this kind of love is, is to look up a great mountain. You might climb for several hours, seemingly nearing the top, only to come over a ridge and see before you an even greater peak in an even more inhospitable climate.
But who ever said love was easy?
It seems hard to present, an alternative answer, especially, as the original is a quote. But if you will forgive me for paraphrasing to something that is not found in scripture:
“Love God with everything that you have and everything that you are. If you have any self-respect, then love others as you would want to be loved. To be self-emptying in love is hard, but if a community is made of those who are so loving, then you will continually fill one another up to overflowing. This is the cornerstone of our communal ethic and a significant part of our identity.”