May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
Today’s gospel lesson takes us to the heart of both the Jewish and the Christian faith. Jesus is asked which, amongst the 615 commandments in the Hebrew scripture, is the greatest. As a faithful Jew, Jesus knew his scripture and quoted two verses from the Torah. The first is the prayer recited by religious Jews twice a day. It is called the Shema, a Hebrew word which means “hear”. It is the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God; the Lord is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus adds the phrase, “and with all your mind”—but more on that later.
Jesus then quotes Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Jesus pronounced that these two commandments were the greatest of all the Jewish commandments. This wasn’t a unique summary that Jesus presented. One of the two main Jewish schools of Jesus’ day taught something very similar. The liberal school of the famous Rabbi Hillel, with which Jesus must have been familiar and where he may even have been a student, taught that the entirety of the Jewish commandments could be summed up in one sentence, “Do not do to your neighbour what you would not have them do to you.”
I have preached about these two greatest commandments many times, but this past week, I did a bit more research and discovered some things that I hadn’t known before. I have preached about how to love God with our mind and our thoughts, with our heart and our emotions, with our soul and our spirit, and with our strength and body. But the Hebrew words don’t divide so easily into these four areas. Please bear with me for a moment while I indulge my nerdy side.
The Hebrew word for soul is “nephesh,” נֶפֶשׁ which means our entire self—our spirit and life force, along with our body and blood. Soul doesn’t just mean our invisible spirit. So how do we love God with all of our soul? To me, it means to honour God in all that we are—our physical health, our spiritual life-force, our very breath, is crucially important. To love God with our soul is to dedicate our entire self into God’s service.
The Hebrew word for strength is “meod” מְאֹד׃ meaning ability and worldly effects or possessions. It means much more than physical strength. It includes the consequences of a person’s life, our relationships, influences, transactions, property, and investments. To me, it means to honour God in all that we have. Do we use our possessions only in self-service? Is our priority in our investments to make money or do we seek ethical investments that will support the common good? Ideally they will do both, but where does our priority lie?
The Hebrew word for heart is “lev” לֵב and means our cognition and volition—it doesn’t just mean our emotions. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus added the word “mind” which is pretty much synonymous in Hebrew with heart, suggesting that both the emotions and the intellect are required to make the best moral judgements. I believe that our western separation of head and heart has weakened our wisdom and our judgements. In Hebrew, mind means understanding and wisdom, just as heart means moral judgement and will. Jesus probably added the word “mind” to emphasize the importance of honouring God in all that we choose.
In sum, to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength and with all our mind means to love with all that we are, with all that we have and with all that we choose. That is about as holistic as you could get. It also sets us up for certain failure because no one can love God to this extent every minute of every day. But thankfully it’s not entirely up to us. We start each day with God first loving us and pouring love into our very core. We will fail every day, but God’s love never tires in forgiving us our failures. God’s wellspring of love never dries out but continues to pump love into and out of us if we can keep that wellspring open. That is what it means to live in God’s grace. “There but, by the grace of God, go I.”
This leads us to the second commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Unlike our love for God, we don’t love our neighbours because they first loved us. Rather, the commandment tells us to love our neighbours regardless of how they treat us because God loves everyone. Every single person, regardless of what they believe or say or do is made in the image of God and is God’s beloved. A Jewish proverb says, “Before every person there marches an angel proclaiming, ‘Behold, the image of God.” As God has created every single person as a beloved child of God, in God’s own image, we are called to love & honour everyone, including ourselves.
Now here’s where the rubber hits the road. Who is it these days who is most difficult for you to love? Is it yourself? Is it someone with whom you radically disagree? If love includes compassion and understanding, I must admit that I’ve had a pretty difficult time loving anti-vaxxers. But I also know that if I allow anyone to be excluded from my compassion, I am failing in the commandment to love my neighbour as myself. This hits pretty close to home for me, because I have some friends who are anti-vaxxers and I have had incredibly difficult struggles trying to maintain these relationships.
Here’s the challenge for us. Love doesn’t mean to give in or to cross ethical boundaries. Tough love means to be firm on moral positions and take responsibility for the common good. But when we think about those whose actions seem to belie the common good, love doesn’t mean to dismiss them as selfish, ignorant idiots. I must be honest that those words come to mind. But the moment we begin to dismiss others with unkind descriptors is the moment we begin to “other” them and justify belittling them. This is not love. It will also not work—it will further entrench both sides in their positions.
We may “other” people in more subtle ways—ways in which we may not even be aware. Last week, I was part of a General Council Zoom meeting where things became a bit tense near the end. One minister was upset about a planned reduction in health benefits for all ministers. Out of compassion, someone else suggested that if the United Church could find $3 million to assist Indigenous communities as they grieved and searched for unmarked graves of their children, the United Church could give additional funding to our people and the support of our ministers.
Do you see the problem with that comment? Both our moderator Richard Bott and former moderator Jordan Cantwell challenged the comparison of these two very different issues that have such different magnitudes. Also noted was the use of the words “our” and “their”. Indigenous people are part of the United Church. Their children are our children. They are us. It was an important learning for all of us in the use of language. It is so easy to “other” people with the use of “they” instead of “us”. When those of us with white privilege distance ourselves from our Indigenous relatives, our compassion and love for them is diminished.
I am always learning about how I, with white privilege, unintentionally marginalize those who are racialized. These are painful lessons, but important ones. I understand that our UCW had a brave and important discussion a couple of weeks ago about racism and how white privilege affects how we picture Jesus. Most of us think of a pale-skinned, Caucasian Jesus, even though Jesus would actually have had semitic features.
Loving our neighbour—especially neighbours who don’t look like us or don’t believe like us—means to be willing to learn how our words and actions might be harmful. It means to acknowledge the racism that we have learned and be willing to change. It means to resist the temptation to belittle those whose positions are adamantly opposed to ours. Disagreeing is one thing. Dehumanizing insults are quite another. In this increasingly polarized time, we, as Christians, must be more alert than ever to how we can love everyone and be willing to change that which lessens our love.
Today, Oct. 31, is Reformation Sunday—a day when we remember the courage it took for the church to change in radical ways that brought it back to the gospel. That challenge of reformation remains before us, for we are a church reformed and ever reforming. Loving our neighbour requires radical love that can break through barriers of fear, misunderstanding, racism and “othering”.
In reflecting upon the greatest commandments to love God and neighbour as ourselves, William Blake wrote,
I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see
I sought my God, but my God eluded me
I sought my neighbor, and I found all three:
My God, my soul and thee.