When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I’ve always skimmed over these verses as almost boringly self-explanatory: we must love everyone, because to not love everyone would be to not love God. In comparison to all the fun parables and riddles Jesus often gives us to contemplate, “love God and love others” feels like a powerful point mundanely delivered. At a recent Bible study, I had the privilege of discussing this reading with some very perceptive fellow Christians. So, having previously viewed this passage as a frustratingly vague point poorly delivered, I’d like to share my thoughts on it over the past week.
As mentioned above, Jesus replies to the Pharisees in a very direct and straightforward way. Parables and questions are often thrown out to make the Pharisees look and feel stupid, else to make them incriminate themselves, but this is rather different. Love is, on its surface, fairly uncontroversial. The greatest commandment is not complicated, but almost absurdly simple. To love God and love others. No caveats, just a single verb: to love. Yet this love is probably one of the most difficult things for us to live out in our daily life.
To love everyone is impossible. The Bible itself regularly reminds us of this. It has pagans cowering terrified before God, begging to be forgiven for their heresies, only to be slaughtered; it has people being murdered by despotic rulers who believe that massacres are the will of God. Good people do terrible things because they cannot forgive and cannot bring themselves to let go of their own pride and love others. The Bible is a great collection of writings on the human condition, yet it never lets us forget that we are bad, categorically bad, at forgiveness – a badness which throws into stark relief the perfection and consistently of God’s own forgiveness.
So, it’s important to make a distinction between ideology and reality. There are people I won’t love, people I haven’t loved, and people I won’t ever be able to bring myself to love. I’m sure everyone feels the same – it’s hard to love people who’ve treated you with less respect than you feel you deserve. Rather than beating myself up over this, though, I remind myself that God knows we cannot reach the ideal set out for us. As Paul reminds us in Romans, we all fall short of the glory of God, and that’s okay. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reach that ideal, to learn from our failings, and to strive for it even (perhaps especially) when we feel sure we will never reach it. After all, we will never truly understand the nature of God, but that doesn’t mean all theological pursuit is futile; on the contrary, it is essential that we try our utmost to understand God as much as we possibly can. So, to examine and strive for universal love while finding it impossible to love everyone is not contradictory: it is human.
The passage from Matthew is interesting in that it offers not one, but two commandments. However, if we remind ourselves of what the world is, a pure sacrament to God’s love, it’s not hard to bring these two commandments together as one. We are an emanation of God’s pure love, the love which is the essence of the divine. Love of others, good deeds, are often seen as a conduit through which we show our love of God, perhaps because these two commandments are written as discrete – we do things for other people because we love God, we forgive people because we love God, but we often skip the actual, genuine love of other people bit. There is no distinction between loving God and loving others, because we have been made in God’s image. We are God’s creation, and when we are in strife with one another, we hurt God. We cannot use people as a path to God, because then we miss the point: God isn’t distant and far away, but HERE, in the world, and there is something of God in every person.
What about people who commit atrocious acts? Who feel no repentance? Well, the key word there is “person”; no matter what narrative we would like to write for the people we consider the worst, we have to accept that they are people too, as deserving of love as anyone else. We as humans all have the capacity to do awful things, and we need to consider which part of our humanity allows atrocities and terrible acts to be justified in the minds of some. We don’t do that by demonising or punishing: we do that by loving care and fellowship. Humanity is by necessity a mixing of the good and the bad: we all live distant from God, we are all imperfect, and we all have the capacity to do excellent things and to do awful things. We need to understand this. This is why the attitude towards “bad people” is so damaging. It’s uncomfortable, but the people who often most need love are those who commit the worst acts. This is why systems of restorative justice are both the most effective and the best example of extending God’s loving kindness. To understand all is to forgive all. That is where we find love. That is where we find God.