ON ONE OCCASION, Jesus was asked which he considered to be the greatest commandment. His answer was unequivocal: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.’ (Mark 12.29-31) Not surprisingly, he begins with the Shema, the foundation of every faithful Jew’s response to God. The Shema was recited twice each day, worn upon a Jew’s forehead in a phylactery and inscribed upon the door posts of the home (cf. Deuteronomy 6.4-9).
Jesus goes on to link love of God with love of neighbour, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’, quoting from Leviticus (19.18) and reflecting a juxtaposition found in Jewish literature at the turn of the eras (eg ‘Love the Lord and your neighbour’; Testament of Issachar 5.2). Elsewhere, he extends the reach of neighbourly love to embrace, it seems, all humanity epitomized in one’s oppressors: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’, as Matthew has it or, according Luke, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you’ (Matthew 5.44/Luke 6.27). Here, Jesus may well have been breaking new ground.
The crux, however, is not whether Jesus was the first person, Jew or otherwise, to articulate this ethical ideal, but his capacity to pursue it. That is, how was Jesus able to love not only those who loved him, but also the unloved, the unlovely and even the unlovable? What resourced him for such an embodiment of love and how can his followers become similarly resourced?
Our starting point is Jesus’ formation as a person. From what we can gather, he belonged to a family and community where he was cherished, cared for and sustained. He inherited the Jewish faith-tradition which introduced him to the blessings of life, taught him to pray, and inducted him in the privileges and responsibilities of being a member of God’s covenant people. Through exposure to the Scriptures and corporate worship he will have been shaped by God’s promises, become familiar with the story of salvation and, no doubt, learned to long for its fulfilment. All this is routine and will have characterized the upbringing of many Galilean Jews at that time; but what is remarkable is the way in which, through growing up in this climate, Jesus encountered the living God personally and experientially, coming to embody God’s love wholeheartedly and sacrificially.
In this respect, it is striking how Jesus’ relationship with God is remembered and communicated in the Gospels. At certain key points, what is implicit throughout comes to the fore. The heavenly affirmation of baptism, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1.11), or transfiguration, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ (Mark 9.7). The autobiographical parable of the wicked tenants in which Jesus identifies himself with the ‘beloved son’, commissioned to be about his father’s business (Mark 12.1-12). Gethsemane where Jesus struggles with the vocation entrusted to him by his heavenly Father, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want’ (Mark 14.36). The agony of Golgotha where he finds himself exiled from the God whose loving embrace had sustained him to that point, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15.34).
These traditions (and there are others) bear witness to Jesus as a person who knew himself to be loved of God; but more than that, someone whose entire ministry flows out of that love and is an expression of it. Jesus’ capacity to love, therefore, tells us as much about his pedigree as it does about personality – an insight that John the evangelist celebrates throughout his Gospel as the following verses attest: ‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love’ (John 15.9–10).
And it is out of this experience of abiding in God’s love that Jesus finds the motivation and the will to love in God’s name. The point here is not that Jesus was the only Jew who ever really loved God; on the contrary, this was a vocation he shared with every Jew and many faithfully sought to fulfil it. But Jesus is remembered as someone who found a new impetus to love which extended beyond the social and religious conventions of his day, even though it was these very traditions which initially shaped his beliefs and devotions. Consider the following passage:
Again Jesus entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. The Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3.1–5)
Strange as it may seem to us, the laws governing Sabbath day observance were a commentary on what it means to love God; they were formulated to help and not to hinder by providing a framework for the faithful to practise their faith – and we all need that. But the danger with any system is that it has the opposite effect to what is intended: it becomes an end itself self, rather than a means to an end; it no longer communicates, but replaces communication; hence, Jesus’ rejoinder, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2.27).
There is, I suspect, nothing inherently wrong with the laws of Sabbath day observance so long as their purpose is rightly understood and their execution performed within that same spirit. But, equally, loving in God’s name can never be limited to such frameworks or formulations. For this reason, we see Jesus repeatedly exercising freedom to improvise – to demonstrate his love of God by allowing that love to shape an appropriate response within him and in relation to the needs of the moment, even when that response extends beyond the limits of convention.
This is one of Jesus’ most defining characteristics. He belonged to a community of faith and was formed by sharing in its life. Through doing so, he encountered the one whom he described as his Father – a relationship which not only breathed life into his own observance but also inspired a faith-filled playfulness through which he explored the limits of God’s love of him by loving others to the limits. In this way, Jesus comes to embody a quality of love that bears witness to what it means to be formed in God’s image – in effect, to be loved into being – not only by loving God through loving those who loved him, but especially through loving the unlovely, the unloved and the unlovable. This is surely how he is able to touch lepers, to eat with sinners, to mix with the mediocre, to exalt the weak, to challenge the mighty, even to extend compassion to those outside the covenant and, ultimately, to risk life and limb for love’s sake. Paradoxically, Jesus’ experience of God’s love becomes most apparent in his love of others, especially, those whom it is inconceivable to love –‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23.34).
It is impossible to legislate for this kind of behaviour. No religious tradition (Christianity included), of itself, can generate this level of response; at best, it can point us in the right direction. But by being formed within a community that is rooted in God’s love and seeks to make it manifest, we may encounter God personally as a dynamic and transforming presence whose unconditional love for us frees us to love others unconditionally. For this reason, the ultimate law of love within Christianity is the person of Jesus himself and the insight he offers us is not, ‘Make me into a new code of conduct’, but ‘Come and share my faith and, through doing so, discover for yourself the God who loves us into being and who enables us to embody that same quality of love.’
This is perhaps the hardest of all the skills of our apprenticeship to acquire, the art of loving. A love that isn’t prescriptive or constraining, but is nonetheless informed by good practice and shaped by the disciplines of discipleship. A love that is neither sentimental nor fleeting, but remains dynamic and vulnerable.
To become competent in the art of loving is, I suspect, a little like gaining proficiency in a language. At the outset, there is a vocabulary of behaviours to master, there is a grammar of relationships to learn, there is sensitivity to others to acquire. All this we inherit and take on trust. And through practice, these basic components gradually lose their strangeness and awkwardness, becoming ‘second nature’ as they draw us into communion with God who is love and who engenders such love in us as we participate in the divine nature through loving creatively and wholeheartedly family, friend and stranger, loveable, pitiful and despicable alike.
This is the embodiment of love Jesus invites us to emulate. A fusion of form and spirit, of discipline and ecstasy, which is captured in what initially appears a contradiction in terms, a commandment to love (cf Mark 12.28-31; John 13.34; 15.12), but on further reflection reminds us that whilst affectional ‘feelings-driven’ love lacks backbone, rational ‘will-full’ love lacks passion, and each needs the other to flourish.