What is the greatest commandment?
Do we remember it, from day to day?
When we hear Catholic celebrities, politicians, heavens, Catholic clergy claiming devotion to the faith; or fellow Catholics defend their opinions as grounded in an authentic Catholic faith; do we know to test that claim, that defence, against this central confession?
We need to know what that greatest, and first before all commandments is, and what it really means; and not assume that our satisfaction, the warm feeling we get from what we say and what we do is sufficient assurance of our faithfulness.
I say that, because in this day and age, you will be praised often for the evil you do, and condemned for the virtue you live. The world is quite happy to see you take on its standards and its judgments as the measure of your faithfulness.
The greatest commandment is to love God, with all of our being, first. All else flows from this.
That is the first and greatest commandment. There is no equivalence or parity with the second, to love your neighbour as yourself. It cannot substitute for the first, replace it at all.
Indeed, you cannot love your neighbour properly until you are grounded in a love for God.
The second commandment, which Jesus says is “like” the greatest, is to “love your neighbour as yourself.” And by that he means that this is indispensable; it’s required. This is known by many as the “golden rule” and is common to most of the major religious traditions, and even among atheists and agnostics: do to others as you would have them do to you.
I’ve spoken at other times of the incompleteness of this formula. If one has a rotten moral foundation, no ethical compass, the standard by which you operate can lead to all kinds of evil. I’ve said that applying this rule when a first-year undergrad at university could mean helping everyone get drunk, stoned, and sexually satisfied because that, in my weakness, was what I wanted. By the way, I wasn’t all that notorious or depraved at university; I had my Saturday night lapses.
And upon reflection, and I don’t say this to my credit, but give the credit to God’s grace, what stopped me from going too far with things all those years ago was likely that somewhere there was a vestige of my faith, remnants of the formation I received as a boy in church.
Growing up Anglican, my formative years were spent in worship using what is regarded by many as a grim little tome, the Book of Common Prayer. It’s not liked by some because it is so insistent on reminding the worshiper that he is a sinner, and unworthy. When I had my first go-round at seminary, preparing for Anglican ministry, some of the more liberal professors expressed their contempt for it, “it’s the theology of the miserable worm” they would say. Worship, by their reasoning, should be an exercise in growing self esteem through a constant repetition of the mantra, “God loves me, no matter what.” And as true as that is, it is as incomplete a statement as one is apt to find. God loves you, even as you walk away from Him.
As an Anglican altar boy, at celebrations of the Eucharist, which for us was every other Sunday, we would repeat this Gospel text, the minister saying,
OUR Lord Jesus Christ said: Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
And I, with the congregation would solemnly respond: Lord, have mercy upon us, and write both these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee.
Do that enough years, and you never forget the words; and perhaps, you will not forget their truth.
When Jesus answered the lawyer in today’s gospel passage, he began by reciting what is known in the Jewish faith as the Shema. Taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, it is the essential confession of faith for Jews, it is their “Apostle’s Creed.”
The full text of this is:
“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 might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Jesus, as observant Jews continue to do, would have recited this daily.
Then Jesus adds, “…you shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
What is being expressed by our Lord is an absolute devotion to God, and not as a terrifying deity, but in the Jewish understanding as the giver of the law. That law for them is truth to live by, the one effective defense against the evils of the world, that which will bring them to full relationship with the creator and make of humanity.
Christians adopt this attitude and expand its dimensions through their understanding of Christ, the Word of God; and so, it is not just “law” or a moral code that we show devotion to; and the fact of God as the source of all things. The Christian inflection, as we might put it, is to worship God as Logos, as the creating Word, and so the source of all that is true. And we worship truth and strive to uphold it conditioned by only our other central precept, put best and most succinctly in the first letter from John, that “God is love.”
That’s hard to do.
We must hold to what is true, even when inconvenient, difficult, requiring us to overthrow our own deeply held assumptions, demanding of us allegiance even as it brings us into opposition to family and friends.
We must love those who hate us.
And truth is almost never neatly handed to us by the world and its agents. As we have seen of late, banning and censorship has erupted in the legacy media, on social media, and the internet more generally. Algorithms determine what you see on your newsfeed online, and it feeds into our prejudices and confirms our biases; conventional media know the intoxicating effect of conflict, how it is compelling viewing. They would have us live in fantasy, or in despair.
The vision offered is an unattainable utopia for which we are to make irrational sacrifice even as we torture ourselves and maim our institutions out of a misplaced sense of penitence for our failure to be this ideal.
The motivation is fear; fear of death, fear of social isolation, of being ostracized; a fear so great it can blind you to reality. This is what the world offers you day in and day out.
The great Catholic and Canadian scholar, Marshall McLuhan, the man who coined the phrase, “the global village” and gave us the aphorism, “the medium is the message” was also a man of profound faith and spirituality. Many are revisiting his work and seeing in it prophecy, for he was a scholar in the field of communication, and made in his day the keenest observations about how information technology was changing us.
McLuhan contradicts those who attack the Church as being a place of indoctrination into a medieval cult, and correctly describes Christianity as the most profound intellectual and spiritual tradition that supports the existence of the private person and the dignity of the individual (interview – 26 March, 1970, appearing in The Listener). He said that where the Church confronts a tribal culture, there is trouble, and what is being knit together by digital signals is just that, a new tribal culture of intolerance and bigotry even as they proclaim they are about the opposite.
However, what he also noted is that because of the speed of this new technology, we can actually perceive what it is doing. Our senses never register a flower growing and opening, but when we see it in a time-lapsed film we then know of it. The cultural changes of recent decades that have landed us in the current moral morass were only dimly perceivable, but as the pace of communication accelerates, and the degeneration speeds up with it, as McLuhan noted, you can now see it (same interview). And the hypocrisy of those who have led us to this crossroads of history, those who continue to seek a popular mandate to keep us addled by fantasy and paralyzed by fear, is becoming apparent as their corruption and true agenda comes to light. In popular myth, it’s at the crossroads where we meet the devil, and that meeting is upon us. Can you see him? Can you see him in music and in the popular video entertainment, in our politics and in our intellectual life? He is more and more visible, as he brings to us fear and loathing of each other, rather than love of our community.
And to love our community is to love it in its imperfection, as we love a spouse or a child who have their many faults and foibles, and yes, sin; and trust that God’s grace will bring them to that goodness that comes from loving God with all one’s heart and soul and mind.
The greatest commandment keeps us safe, it helps us, to quote St. Paul, to turn from idols, to serve a living and true God; and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. Amen.