Wednesday: Love—the greatest commandment

March 31, 2010

In the second gospel’s account of Passion Week, Mark follows the argument over taxes with an argument ostensibly about the rules of levirate marriage, a law in which a brother is obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow, if there were no offspring, in order to continue his name (that is in order to keep his property within the family). And then comes the question of what is the greatest commandment? In answer to the question, Jesus naturally quotes the law:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul [and with all your mind] and with all your strength. [And] love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31; see Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18)

For us, love is an emotion of the heart, which we usually think of as arising spontaneously as a more or less instinctual response to something. Not so for Jesus and his listeners. For him and all followers of Torah in his time, love was a legal obligation, not just a spiritual ‘commandment’; love was a legal term, not just an emotional one.

Love is the willing, yea, even joyous, commitment to the terms of the covenant with God. The commandment of love summarizes the essential obligations of the covenant.

Thus Mark, in his version of the story, rightly quotes the Shema, the essential confession of Jewish faith, directly from Deuteronomy, as introduction: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

In this context, the three articles of the law of love define comprehensively three areas of human life and activity that are covered in the legal obligation of ‘love’. But to understand what’s involved you have to understand ancient semitic anthropology and let go of the anthropology we western Christians have inherited from the Greeks.

For ancient Semites, the ‘heart’ was not the seat of the emotions, as it is for us; it was the seat of the will, and of wisdom—that is, of the willingness and capacity to study and especially, to follow, Torah: the commitment to know and follow the law, the intention to obey God. This is why Mark adds “and your mind” in his version of the story—he realizes that his Greek readers will misunderstand the term “with all your heart” to mean just the emotions.

For Jesus and his listeners, the ‘soul’ was not some eternal spiritual identity that inhabited the body as something that is ‘poured’ into it as a vessel, as the Greeks believed; for them, the ‘soul’ meant the whole living person. There was no soul separate from the body, and the word encompassed all that was involved with real life in the world as a living entity.

For Jesus and his listeners, ‘strength’ meant all of your material resources and, specifically, your money and other forms of wealth. Originally, it meant willingness to answer the call to holy war against Israel’s enemies when one of the tribes or a prophet called for a muster. Hence the usage of “strength”.

So the love commandment meant: you shall be faithful to the terms of my covenant by dedicating yourself to knowing and following my instructions (that is, Torah); and you shall dedicate to me your very personhood, including all your possessions. That is: you owe me everything. And furthermore, says Jesus: you shall treat your fellow covenanters (neighbors) under the law just as you want to be treated yourselves.

This decisively answers the question posed in Mark a few verses earlier of what we should render to Caesar and what to God: God gets everything, Caesar gets nothing. And, for Jesus, the ‘srength’ clause in the legislation, coupled with loving your neighbor as yourself, provided the legal foundation for his economics of redemption: forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors and the rest of the platform for the common-wealth of God, in which the community takes care of its poor, as in Acts chapters two and four. But more about the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God in later posts. For this is the very heart of the gospel of Jesus—good news for the poor.

And though Jesus here invokes the law (rather than throwing it over, as Paul does later), he has spent his whole prophetic career redefining the law as he wants it applied in his own community.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s