Moses with the Commandments, Rembrandt
We meet the Pharisees again this week, as they come together after their initial failed attempt to trap Jesus with the coin incident. This time, they pose a religious, rather than a political question. It is asked by a scribe, a ‘lawyer’, who were the professional students and expounders of the law. The Rabbis counted 613 laws in the Pentateuch. Some way of assessing their relative importance was needed. Rabbis were naturally the group from whom such opinions could be sought. Jesus gives not one, but two commandments, requiring to be acted on as one. To love God, was well understood from the Shema (Deut 6:5). The Jews recited this twice daily. The second text Jesus uses comes from Lev 19:18 – to love one’s neighbour as oneself. In bringing the two together, as Benedict XVI notes, Jesus puts forward one principle of love which organises and interprets all aspects of the Law. But the paucity of English, especially, in talking about ‘love’ is well known. We speak of loving our cats, our parents, friends, food, God and what not. What does it mean to love God and neighbour -and for that matter, ourselves? Is it the same love that we have in all cases? I would like to suggest three words, which might hopefully capture something of the expression this love takes in each instance: obedience, compassion and humility.
“All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” (Ex 24:7)
Obedience: ‘Obedience’, as an act of love might sound like an oxymoron for us in the libertarian West. It is however, a prized virtue in the Scriptures. It pervades both the Old and New Testaments. In Adam’s disobedience to the voice of God mankind fell, while in Abraham’s obedience, salvation history began proper. From Moses onward, this obedience took the form of keeping the commandments, revealed on Sinai. Jesus would follow in this tradition. To the rich young man who comes to Jesus, asking for how to live his life, Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. Paul will continue, by telling the free-spirited and hedonistic Corinthians that what mattered was ‘keeping the law’. Jesus himself will live out this obedience fully: “son though he was, he learnt obedience through what he suffered” (Heb). But why obedience? Aquinas would say that God should be obeyed, in justice, being our Creator. This is, however, not a blind obedience. The former chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, interestingly, notes in this wonderful article that there is no verb in Biblical Hebrew that means ‘to obey’. It had to be imported later, in secular usage. The word in the Torah, however, is lishmo’a, Shema, which is to ‘hear’ or ‘listen’. The closest English word is ‘to hearken’ or ‘take heed’. Lishmo’a has a wide spectrum of meanings: ‘to hear’, as in conversation (Gen 3:10), ‘to pay focused attention’ (Deut 27:9), ‘to understand’ (Gen 11:7), ‘to register, take to heart’ (Gen 17:20) and ‘to respond by acting’ (Gen 16:2) – the last, usually translated, ‘to obey’. Obedience is what is owed God who has already acted on our behalf. Israel owed everything to the God who had set them free from slavery and made them a people. This was not a gritted-teeth response as much as trust; the trust a child has in its good Father. In the Gospels, this response of obedience takes the form of discipleship. The disciples were the ones who were called by Jesus ‘to be with him and to be sent out’ by him (Mk 3:14). In Jesus, the love of the Father is made fully manifest; this love comes to us in friendship. The disciples were the friends of Jesus (Jn 15:15); they were drawn into this own life. To be a disciple, is to be with Jesus, learn from him and most importantly, become like him. This, the Holy Spirit brings about as we, again, listen to his voice.
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion….” (Lk 7:13)
Compassion: To find one word that would bring the variety of human relationships together is very difficult. Obedience cannot help define human relationships as only God can command our obedience unconditionally. This is not just because he is God, but because he is absolute goodness and absolute Truth. The obedience we owe to parents, authorities and others is always conditional. Greek itself, differentiated between the love of family, of friendship and of romance. Agape (faithful, unconditional love), however, is the preferred word for Love, especially that of God in the New Testament. In John’s gospel, particularly, friendship, as already noted, is given a new depth of meaning, in being used to describe the love Jesus has for his disciples. The word ‘friendship’, has not, fully eroded in its meaning, thankfully, even in the age of Facebook. It has been described by some as the ‘purest of loves’; it certainly has that dimension in the gospels. In true friendship, one has a genuine, though, non-possessive care for the other. It can add (and sometimes be required) for the flourishing of all other loves. The condescension of the God’s love is indicated in calling us his friends – friends walk together, in a kind of equality and mutual respect. Friendship could be a good way of understanding the love we are called to have for another. I have chosen compassion, though, as a better expression for the wider reach of the gospel’s calling. Jesus was constantly moved with compassion when he saw the people. The word indicates a moving, even a violent shaking of the “inner parts”. Even so, compassion can be seen as acting from a place of superiority in current parlance; friendship can provide a helpful balance to it while still maintaining its reach. To be compassionate is to ‘feel with’, to let oneself be moved by the other. Friendship would not be the right word to use for strangers but a heartfelt compassion could indicate true love of neighbour.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God” (Matt 5:8)
Humiliy: Humility is another word often misunderstood. It is not to think badly of oneself – that would be a vice. The gospel calls us to love others as we love ourselves. What could loving oneself mean in our narcissistic age of social media and self-help gurus? When we focus on ourselves, for our own sake we can easily swing to extremes. We can be bloated and unhealthily confident about ourselves at one time, only to come crashing down the next. We can overvalue something in our life while simultaneously rejecting ourselves or parts of ourselves. Jesus again, provides the model. As man, Jesus knew himself as loved by the Father. He loved fully as man, because the love of God permeated all of his humanity. Even with ourselves, we love and value ourselves, in the light of God’s love for us. Whatever be our circumstances, the fact of our existence means that God has loved us into being. We have value, because we are uniquely loved by God. As Benedict XVI put it, “We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life.” One who knows this love, rejects nothing of oneself, nor overvalues oneself. This is true humility. There is integrity, a wholeness – a purity of heart. Once again, as the Catechism puts it –
His gaze purifies our heart; the light of the countenance of Jesus…teaches us to see everything in the light of his truth and his compassion for all men. (CCC 2715)
Neither our obedience to God’s commandments or compassion for our neighbour can be fully possible without, and except, as a response to God’s personal choice of us. In knowing God’s love, we can also see our neighbour, whoever it may be, as loved by the same God. On this hangs the whole Law and also the Prophets.Neither our obedience to God’s commandments or compassion for our neighbour can be fully possible without, and except, as a response to God’s personal choice of us. In knowing God’s love, we can also see our neighbour, whoever it may be, as loved by the same God. On this hangs the whole Law and also the Prophets.