by Sharon Marr
(Based on Mark 12:28-34)
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength‘, that’s what He said is the first commandment of all, ‘and love your neighbour as yourself‘: simple commands telling us all we need to know. All we need to know about God, ourselves, our relationships, the meaning of life, and the world we live in, and I can hear the saints gone before, and my mum, and the Ann Goodhews* of the world say – so … just do it … and right now.
Oh, for everything to be so black and white.
However, in these very troubled times this costly love that Jesus commands us to, with so many struggling with anxiety, fears and bewilderment over what is going on around them, the Covid virus and all its ramifications, the millions in Afghanistan threatened with starvation, Sudan with another war imminent , China raising its fist, and, of course, climate change – the single biggest threat in the fight against poverty and inequality – is not easy or simple, is it?
You can’t legislate for love, we know, but here God through Jesus (in this reading) does command us to love. A royal decree you might say. Discovering the difference between what God can and does achieve and what our laws and the sheer might of the world cannot achieve, is one of the great wonders of being human and of being a person of faith. Discovering the difference between the love commonly witnessed in the world, one that says if you are the person I want you to be I will love you, and the love God has for us that says, I love you just as you are.
I have one tiny funny example of how love can get a little distorted. All my granddaughters have at one stage or another watched with great interest, and participated in, me putting on my make up – so much so that early on, I took to singing a little ditty as we did it:
Put on your happy face
Chase away the blues
I can’t help myself
I love you true.
When Shauna was about four she joined in with me singing our little ditty, but she sang, instead of I love you true, “I love your shoes”. And she did, she played in them constantly making happy clip clop noises on the vinyl floors.
A trite example, but it does show what is utmost in our hearts can become what we determine love to be.
Do you love me – that is, your fellow human being, also created and loved by God – just for myself alone? Or do you love my shoes – that is, the part of me that makes your life happier, safer …. easier …. more comfortable?
What does love really mean to you?
Debie Thomas of the Journey with Jesus website draws our attention to Jesus’s answer to this, in his response to the Pharisees’ question in today’s wonderful reading. “Remember,” she says, “at this point in the story, Jesus’s crucifixion is just days away. Death is literally breathing down his neck, and he is rapidly running out of opportunities to communicate the heart of his message. But when he is asked what matters most in a life of faith, Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Believe the right things.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Maintain personal and doctrinal purity.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Worship like this or attend a church like that.’ He doesn’t even say, ‘Read your Bible’ or, ‘Pray every day’ or, ‘Preach the Gospel to every living creature’. He says, ‘Love.’ That’s it. All of Christianity distilled down to its essence. Love. Love God and love your neighbour.”
And note, Jesus doesn’t say, “I sure hope love happens to you.” He says, “Love is the greatest and first commandment.” Meaning, it’s not a matter of personal attraction, feeling, or preference. It’s not a matter of lucky accident. It’s a matter of obedience to the one we call “Lord.”
What would it cost us to take Jesus’s version of love seriously? To practice and cultivate a depth of compassion that’s gut-punching? To train ourselves into a hunger for justice so fierce and so urgent that we rearrange our lives in order to pursue it? To pray for the kind of empathy that causes our hearts to break? Do we even want to? To become vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard. Hard and costly. And yet this is the call.
We have a God who, first and foremost, wants our love — not our fear, penitence, or piety. And we have a God who wants everyone else to also feel loved. By us.
As I was writing this I found myself humming again and again an old favourite from the 60s: Burt Bacharach’s What the world needs now. Remember it? Well I looked up the lyrics and it continues with these words,
Lord, we don’t need another mountain
There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb
There are oceans and rivers enough to cross
Enough to last ’til the end of time
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some, but for everyone.
Hear the cry? Please no more obstacles in our way. There are just so many obstacles in life. (Remember the 60s, with the real threat of nuclear war, with the Cuban missile crisis? People were really frightened and powerless.) Just give us love, and not just for some but for everyone.
Not judged. Not shamed. Not punished. Not chastised. But loved.
__ . __
We cannot love ourselves or our neighbours in any meaningful, sustainable way if that love is not sourced and replenished in an abiding love for God.
The love God shows us in Jesus is one that is primarily interested in the good of the other person, rather than one’s own. It does not attempt to possess or dominate the other. It allows genuine space for the other to be; and that love is superabundant, such that it can be offered without reserve.
Rowan Williams**, preaching on this very passage, says that God’s love for the world is extraordinary. It is without cause, absolutely free, absolutely, overwhelmingly unreasonable.
“And that’s the kind of the love we are invited to become part of as his friends. Before we belonged to anything, before we did anything, before we achieved anything – even before we believed anything, God was loving us.
“From the beginning, we were there.
And, of course, since we were there with God, in God’s mystery, in the eternal utterance of the Word and the Spirit, before time began, we are bound up in the immense mystery of God’s outpouring of Himself in creation and in redeeming love.”
And this outrageous love is for all.
Only God’s love is inexhaustible. If we cut ourselves off from the flow of God’s compassion, we will quickly run dry. In other words, the motion of our hearts must be cyclical — love of God making possible and deepening our love of neighbour; and love of neighbour putting flesh and bones on our love for God.
__ . __
So what is it that we are called to do? I believe it is to follow in the footsteps of the one who declared love to be the be-all and end-all. The call is to weep with those who weep. To laugh with those who laugh. To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive the sinners, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, wash each other’s feet, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth. The call is to love.
I conclude today with a prayer poem from Steve Garnaas-Holmes
help me this day to add love to the world.
Not fear, not obstacles, not anxiety
about what I owe or am owed, but love.
Help me know my freedom —
not to do what I please,
but to fulfil my call to love,
my only goal, not that I prevail
but that others receive love.
In calm interactions,
or in moments of anxiety or conflict,
let me contribute love.
In silence or in confrontation,
in public endeavour or quiet prayer,
in heroic action or mundane chores,
let me add love to the world.
O God of Love,
let your love overflow:
fulfil your love in me.
* Ann Goodhew was a former church administrator of St Francis Church, and a founder of the church’s Op Shop.
** Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012.