An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Love and Religious Ritual

A sermon on Mark 12:28-34 by Nathan Nettleton

The number one commandment, says Jesus, is ‘Love’. It is more important than all the religious offerings and sacrifices put together. There is something strange about issuing a command to love. There is something almost self-contradictory about it, because if you’re doing something for someone primarily because you’ve been commanded to do so, how can you also claim that it is essentially an act of love?

It is a bit like a parent telling a child to say thank you. You can tell a child to say thank you and if things are going well they’ll say it. But there’s not much point in telling a small child to be grateful. A genuine spirit of gratitude will be born in the child at some later developmental stage. At this stage all you can hope for is to train the child in the manners that are associated with gratitude. And you do that partly as a way of laying the foundation for the child to discover and grow into real gratitude. Once real gratitude has been born you don’t have to tell them to say thank you. To people who experience real gratitude, the expression of it comes naturally.

Surely love is like that too. And if it is, what’s the point of Jesus telling us to love – to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves?

In fact, to be true to the context, he wasn’t giving it as a command here. He was reciting a command from the law of Israel as an answer to a question. The question Jesus faced was “Which commandment in the law is number one?” And after giving the two laws of love as his answer, Jesus affirms the man who responds by saying that these laws are far more important than any number of offerings and sacrifices that one could offer in the temple. So in fairness to Jesus we must note that he is not emphasising the idea of love as a commandment, he is emphasising the idea that what God really wants from us in not meticulous obedience to a bunch of religious and moral laws so much as lives shaped by love.

The next thing to see that may help us address our question is the unusual grammar involved in the command. It doesn’t actually say “Love” in the form of a normal command. It says, “You will love,” which grammatically reads more like a prediction that we will love than a command that we must love. Now the Ancient Greek experts say that it is a future form with an implied command, and I’m not arguing with them, but the fact remains that it is not the normal form for a command. It is softened with something that has at least a hint of a promise to it. And in fact if we look at the whole command, it reads: “Hear O Israel – the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.” The emphasis of command is actually the command to “Hear.” The “You shall love the Lord your God…” is what we are commanded to hear, and it has this slightly ambiguous blend of promise and implied command. So the meaning is sort of half way in between “You folks are commanded to love,” and “Listen up folks. There’s good news. The day is coming when we will all love God and we will all love one another.” Perhaps I’m wrong in saying that its half way in between. It’s more that both are held together in a kind of creative tension.

It seems to me that this combined promise/command recognises that love is not a black or white, “you’re either doing it or you’re not” kind of thing. Love is something where there is always room for improvement, but the fullness of love is always something that we hunger for but can never live up to. I don’t think there is a person on the planet who doesn’t have even a shred of love within them, but I know there is not a person on the planet who comes even close to the full measure of love we’ve seen once – in Jesus Christ. And because all of us have at least some measure of love in us, and because all of us aspire to grow in love, then we can respond to a command to love because our actions will not be motivated solely by the command. The command might be the prompt we needed to go an extra step or two, but the desire to love and to be ever more loving is already a part of us. The command, at best, will be one of the things that helps keep us pushing on towards the goal.

And that’s where the promise comes in – the promise that changes the whole feel of the command. The promise tells us that the striving is not in vain. The promise tells us that every little step forward that we make in learning to love God and love one another now is worthwhile because it is preparing us for a promised future where love will come to fruition. The promise tells us that every time we push ourselves a little further down the path of love we are putting one more nail in the coffin of the callous indifference and hard-hearted greed that have reigned destructively over our world for far too long. Every move of love forces open the gate a little wider for the full reign of love to come marching in and gather up all things into the glorious communion of love that is the heart of God.

Sure, sometimes our efforts at being loving will not be much more sophisticated than a small child saying thank you because he’s told to. And at times the way of love will be regarded by everyone around us as the way of losers – so much so that we’ll want to forget it and succumb to the greed and cultured indifference of the “winners”. And if love was only a command then perhaps we might as well.

But love is also a promise. It is a promise that undergirds every step of love we take. It provides the strength for love and it provides the meaning for love. When we stand on tip toes and peer over the horizon of the future and we catch sight of the all-embracing reign of love coming dancing towards us, then love makes sense. Then even our most faltering efforts at love have a context that fills them with hope because every act of love becomes a prophetic protest against cynicism and despair and a courageous proclamation of the good news of the dawning reign of love.

Jesus accepted the idea that our endeavours to live into this vision of love are far more important than our religious rituals, even our acts of offering and sacrifice. But it is not because they are opposites and opposed to each other. Love is more important than religious ritual in the same way that love is more important than a bunch of flowers. The reality of love is more important than the mode of its expression. When we gather around this table to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving we are doing so as an expression of whole-hearted love for God, and to whatever extent that love has become real, the offering is a worthy one. If the ritual words and actions were completely devoid of love, then they’d be devoid of meaning and utterly without value. But none of us are completely devoid of love and love is our promised future. These ritual expressions of love will both further our growth into the fullness of love and become deeper and richer and more meaningful as we fill them with more and more of our growing love.

So hear this, people of God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Thanks be to God.


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