Hear what our Lord Jesus saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
When we encounter Jesus in this passage from the Gospel of Mark, he has already had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and is in the midst of being grilled by the Pharisees and Herodians. They’re looking for some way to condemn Jesus—a way to accuse him of heresy, of false teaching, of sedition against the Temple and Rome. And, as usual, Jesus is far too clever for them.
He tells them exactly what they want to hear—and exactly what he needs to tell them. These are the greatest commandments: love the one God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. I like to imagine that maybe they are bewildered by his response. To their knowledge and understanding of Hebrew scripture, the Law doesn’t contain just two commandments—or even just ten commandments. There are 613 separate commandments to live a Godly and devout life. Some Hebrew teachers divided these 613 into 365 prohibitions (one for each day of the year) and 248 positive commands (one for each bone of the body). This indicates that the Law of God should govern each of our days and each of our movements. Loving God requires complete devotion.
But instead, Jesus tells them that there are two that the most important for living a holy and devout life: Love God. Love your neighbor.
This instruction seems rather clear to me: Jesus instructs that at the very heart of everything, at the center of each movement and across the entirety of every day, there must be love: for God, for our neighbors, and for ourselves. All of the laws, all of the prophet’s teachings, all of the ways that we exist in the world should distill down to love. Everything we do must be guided by love. This should be the only instruction we need.
Several years ago, I was working as the customer service office manager at a particular upmarket housewares and furniture store with easily-recognizable black-and-white paper shopping bags. The couple who founded the chain opened the first shop in the early 60s in Chicago’s Old Town, using overturned
shipping crates and old wine barrels to display their wares. They had a rich guiding principle that ensured positive customer satisfaction: “In customer service, there is one policy: We do our best to make things right. Everything else is a guideline.”
As I prayed with this text over the last week, this policy came to mind. I see an equivalence in Jesus’ words: “There is one policy: Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Everything else is a guideline.” If we use that as our baseline, everything that follows should be done in love. There’s a proverb that I’ve heard that says, “Water always finds a way out.” Water will always return to its source, no matter the distance or the barrier. It will sneak through every crack in the ground and even move earth in an effort to return to the sea. Love is the same way. Love is from God and will always return to God. Sometimes, we are the mechanism by which this happens, through caring for our neighbor in times of strife.
Loving God above all other things invites and motivates us to be active participants of God’s beloved community. If we commit to loving God with every sinew and synapse, every action and reaction, that love flows into every other crevice it can find and shapes how we exist in the world.
With love as our policy, the crafters of our Book of Common Prayer have given us a few extra guidelines to help steer us in the right direction. In our baptismal covenant, which we will encounter again next week, we promise to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves by continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, by resisting evil and returning to the Lord, by proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ, by seeking and serving Christ in all persons, and by striving for justice and peace among all people. These are the guidelines that we, as Episcopalians, agree to abide as our way of loving God, loving our neighbor, and changing the world.
At the heart of these guidelines are these greatest laws that Jesus asks us to follow. First, we are asked to give our hearts, souls, and minds entirely to loving God. Perhaps this is an invitation to live courageously, to expect to encounter God in those moments where you’re uncomfortable or when you feel challenged, to feel God’s presence in your uncertainty. For others, this may be an invitation to draw more closely to God in prayer and worship, to sit with God’s presence within us and be in relationship with God. We’re all given such unique gifts and talents that there is not “right” way to do this—but what matters is that we try anyway.
Second, the baptismal covenant invites us to seek and serve Christ in all people and to strive for justice and peace in the world around us. This is the action stage of Jesus’ call for us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our neighbor isn’t just the person next to us, someone who looks like us, thinks like us, or speaks like us. Our neighbor is our enemy, those we disagree with, those we simply don’t like. Our neighbor is also the person “out there” who knows all too well the pain of inadequate love: the starving, the abused, the addicted, the immigrant, the underemployed. There are far too many people who do not know love, and Jesus asks us to be disciples to and with each of these people, to show them love and justice and mercy, to invite them into God’s loving and beloved community. We have a great many things to learn from those who live at the margins, but we can only learn from them if we love them first. Remember that they will know us by the love we show.
The philosopher and social critic Cornel West has famously said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” It is so much easier to look the other way—to avoid, to dismiss, or to ostracize—than it is to look these people in the eye and remind them that they are important, that they are needed, and that they are loved—by you, by humankind, and by God. If we can demonstrate to these neighbors who have been cast aside by society that they are loved, imagine the love that God feels when we do this... when we do our best to make things right. To make things just. To let our love flow like water.
After all: We are not far from the kingdom of God.