“Love God. Love People. Nothing Else Matters” became my mantra during my single, young-adult years; life seemed simple without the tether of expectation coming from academic degrees, job titles and the financial responsibilities of parenthood. Those words from the mantra of my youth are a paraphrase from Jesus in our Gospel text this week.
A scribe asks him a question and Jesus responds by proclaiming the Jewish Shema:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Love God. Love People. Nothing Else Matters.”
Is this statement about two-directional love all that really matters throughout the entirety of one’s life? Can that really be true when life gets more complicated? If so, then why does it seem like many followers of Christ today have edited Jesus’ declaration to read: “Love God. Love People…and a whole lot of other stuff is also just as important?”
Jesus’ words take on further texture if we expand the definition of “neighbor” according to his parable of the Good Samaritan—all people are our neighbors. The Sermon on the Mount adds an exclamation point to this expanded definition; Jesus says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44).
Your neighbor is everyone…even those who hate you. That’s a big pill to swallow.
This might have been the stumbling block for many listening to Jesus. They expected the primacy of loving the divine, but not the inclusion of loving all humanity. This second commandment is the catch. After all, many Pharisees had organized themselves around an allegiance to the law that inevitably became self-centered and neglected the neighbor; that’s the natural result of legalism. In fact, they had assumed superiority over all “neighbors,” even the Sadducees that Jesus had just finished shutting down in the previous verses.
As the text reads me this week, the sobering reality is that I see far more of myself than I’d like to admit in the biblical characters I’m tempted to demonize. Why, like them, have I allowed so many other things to “matter” more than the cruciform-shaped dimension of love? Why do I allow my pride, reputation, success, and comfort to matter more than selfless, sacrificial love? What did “young me” understand that the older, insecure version seems to have forgotten?
“We cannot achieve greatness,” Thomas Merton wrote, “unless we lose all interest in being great.” Love, Jesus declares, is the only means by which to unplug from the violence and rivalry that is the inevitable outcome of legalism (disincarnated law). Put more simply, there’s no authentic love of God without love of neighbor.
And trust me, legalism can take many forms. It afflicts every ideology. The 13th-century poet Rumi captures his own struggles when he confesses, “I have become so tired of what I have been doing.” Far too often, we forget the simplicity of love and get caught up in the intricacies of “whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” That is not God’s desire.
Rumi finishes his poem with an arresting image that captures the heart of the Shema which Jesus cited. He concludes his poem with the words,
Only the holder the flag fits into.
Indeed, an integrated Christian life is not one that exhausts its energy pridefully waving flags of moral obedience, personal reputation, burnt offerings or superficial sacrifice. Rather, humanity fully incarnated is one that chooses “only love.” With that understood, Jesus tells the inquisitive Scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Let it be so,