|by Rev. Sterling M. Durgy
One cannot read far into the New Testament without learning of the importance of love. When Jesus was asked to name the most important commandment of God, He answered that all of the Law of the Old Testament could be fulfilled by loving God and loving people (Matthew 22:34-40). Certainly, Jesus answered in terms of the Mosaic Law because the man who questioned him was a "lawyer," a "scribe" or religious scholar whose task was to interpret the teachings of the Old Testament to the Hebrew religious community. But Jesus' answer went farther, pointing out the importance of love in the correct interpretation of all Scripture.
Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, part of the "shema" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) to emphasize the importance of the love of God, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might." The shema was recited by faithful Jews on a daily basis in both private and public worship in response to the teaching of Deuteronomy 6:7. These words, among others, were inscribed upon parchments, placed in leather cases, and mounted on the doorposts of Jewish homes to remind the occupants of the importance of being faithful to God and His Word. Other parchments containing these words were inserted in leather pouches meant to be tied to the head and left arm during times of prayer. They reminded the faithful Jew to keep God as a central part of thought and to honor God in all that was done. Some Jews wore these "phylacteries" all the time to draw public attention to their devotion to God, and there is a possibility that the "lawyer" who addressed Jesus was wearing them when he questioned Jesus. In any case, the verse was already an important part of his worship. Jesus called the commandment to love God the first of all commandments.
For the second part of Jesus' answer, Jesus went to Leviticus 19:18, which states "you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord." Interestingly, the influential Jewish rabbi Hillel, whose life and ministry preceeded that of Christ by only a few years, had said that all of the teachings of the Law could be summarized by this verse, so the lawyer would not have found Jesus' words at all strange. Underscoring the importance of this to us, Paul refers to this teaching in Romans 13:9-10 and Galatians 5:14, James in James 2:8, and John in I John 4:21.
It is useful to read the context of the original verse in Leviticus. The immediate context begins with a charge to Israel to remember "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy" in 19:1. In the following verses God enjoins the Israelites to provide for the poor, give fair treatment to all individuals regardless of their position in society, be honest in all testimony and business dealings, and to refrain from mistreating the weak and injured and from all lies, slander, and theft. In other words, to be holy means to seek social justice in the fullest meaning of the words.
In Mark's account of this meeting between the lawyer and Christ (Mark 12:28-34), the lawyer replies that the fulfillment of these verses is "much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices," a statement which Jesus strongly approved. Indeed, the superiority of obedience to God's Word over religious ceremony is stressed by Samuel (I Samuel 15:22), David (Psalm 40:6-8, 51:16-17), Asaph (Psalm 50:7-23), Hosea (Hosea 6:6), and Micah (Micah 6:6-8), so there are numerous Scripture verses that led the scribe to this conclusion.
The message of these verses is not that there is something wrong with religious ceremonies. Jesus participated in worship of His day. And the ceremonies of the Hebrew tabernacle, and later the Temple, came into existence by the commandment of God. Rather, it is that the willingness to love God and others forms the only basis for true worship (Matthew 5:23-24, Psalm 51:16-19), and that without love true worship does not exist. The turning to this attitude is called "repentence."
This places in perspective not only ceremonial sacrifices, but personal sacrifices made for the sake of faith: sacrifices of money, property, or food given to sustain the Lord's work or to the poor, sacrifices of time given to the Lord's service or to worship, or the sacrifice of one's own life as a martyr. There can be no doubt that in this world sacrifice is often a part of true service to God (Mark 12:41-44, John 15:13, Acts 20:17-24, II Corinthians 8:1-5). Christian love always carries with it the willingness to sacrifice. However, it is not true that this kind of sacrifice, in and of itself, represents true Christian spirituality. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing" (v.3).
In the early years of the Christian church, the risk of persecution was high. Many early Christians were jailed or put to death for their faith. When Christianity became an officially recognized religion, much of the pain went away. So people invented ways to experience pain. They went without sufficient food, water, clothing or shelter, subjected themselves to personal torture, or invented tasks that were beyond what any human being should have to do, all of this to draw attention to their supposed dedication to the Lord or to make themselves feel "spiritual." But all of this was to the detriment, not the advancement, of true Christianity. In Christianity, love can be called a law, without which everything else is completely without value.
How, then, shall we fulfill this "law of love?" First, by recognizing that this is something that we cannot do ourselves. Love is part of the gift of God's Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25). When God dwells in us, He communicates a heart of love that affects everything in our life. So we should ask God, not just for love, but for the Spirit of Christ to fill our hearts. Secondly, we can obey the commandments of God as an act of worship (John 15:10, I John 2:1-6). Finally, we can love God by identifying with His purposes in the lives of others. We should not try to take God's place. We cannot be the Redeemer, for that is the place of Christ (I Timothy 2:5). It is not our place to forgive sins that God has not forgiven (Jeremiah 6:14ff), nor is it our place to take vengence for people's misdeeds (Romans 12:19), for only God is Judge. But we can identify what God wants to do in the lives of others and, as far a possible, promote and support those goals as His instruments.
First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume III, Part 3, March 1995.
Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.
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