Matthew 22:34-40

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.

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Jesus and Socialism

Christianity, and in particular the faith propagated by my own church, the Church of England, is viewed by many as a warm, cosy blanket into which we retreat from the harsher realities of the world. It’s easy to see why people view it as such: the Anglican church is, to many, a comforting English tradition, fitting in with afternoon cricket games, boarding school and afternoon tea. I often make jokes about church really being about tea, biscuits, and gossip. I made one such joke to someone the other day, and was met with the response: ‘Really? Isn’t it about…you know…revolution?’

I make no secret of my ardent socialism. I believe that a socialist world would be a far better world than the one we currently live in, and I believe it’s an ideal to which we should strive in order to secure happiness, harmony and equality. For a long time I had a great deal of animosity towards the church because I saw it as an institution whose main job was to uphold a conservative status quo, not to encourage and enact an overturning of deeply engrained injustices in the world. In one of my first conversations with a now good friend, he told me he believed that one couldn’t be a Christian without being a socialist; my immediate response was to balk at the suggestion that Jesus and the Bible had anything pertinent to say about justice or equality. Being nice and kind to other people, sure, but not serious, grass roots social action. A few years later, and having actually read the Bible, I’m now quite happy to entirely retract my previous sentiments and agree with my friend.

The New Testament in particular presents us with several undeniable instances of communal living being the ideal towards which all Christians should strive, and I want to focus on a couple of those in this post. It’s tempting to also sift through scripture to find some passages promising condemnation of the rich and the greedy, but I want to focus less on the negative and more on the positive: rather than discussing what we shouldn’t do, I want to explore what the Bible tells us we should do once we dedicate our lives to Jesus.

John is probably my favourite Gospel, but Luke runs a close second. While John expresses the beautiful and the sublime to be found in the story of Jesus and in the profession of faith, Luke is rather more straightforward, giving us some excellent practical theology. 3:10-11 is a lovely example of Luke’s blunt and direct narrative: John the Baptist, instructing people in ways to prepare themselves for the coming of the Christ, tells the crowds who have come to be baptised by him: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (NRSV). There is nothing ambiguous or figurative here: this is a direct command. In order to prepare ourselves to love and follow Jesus, it is a moral imperative that we share what we have, that we abandon any greed which we are harbouring. This passage encourages a certain level of discomfort, as it demands that we who have much absolutely must give what we have to those who have little.

Given that Acts is traditionally attributed to St Luke, it’s no surprise that we seem this theme of sharing and of communal living in both texts. The Book of Acts presents a beautiful view of communal living at one of the most important points in the New Testament. After the Holy Spirit has descended on the people at Pentecost, and they begin to truly understand the significance of what happened at the crucifixion:

“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:43-47, NRSV)

This is one of my favourite verses in the entire Bible – like the aforementioned passage from Luke 3, it’s so easy to overlook, but in it rests the most beautiful and perfect view of living in harmony with the world. It’s reminiscent of the peaceful living presented in Psalm 104, and reminds me of the ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ in the words of the Grace. It reminds us that we are all one body in Christ, and reinforces the need for us to live together, to live communally as that one body, all striving towards peace and harmony in God’s creation to better glorify His name. I have an ESV Study Bible which has a very fun bit of commentary on this passage of Acts: “Though some people have referred to this situation as “early communism”, this is clearly not the case…”. I’m sorry, ESV editors, but it absolutely is the case, and it is the most perfect model we have of living a Christlike and Christ-centred life.

Silence

Last year, before I became jaded and disillusioned and left university, I wrote an essay on Roman Catholic liturgy in Hamlet. One paragraph was about the relationships between death and silence in the play, and unsurprisingly focused on Hamlet’s dying words:

I cannot live to hear the news from England,
But I do prophesy th’ election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited – the rest is silence. (5.2.339-43)

Hamlet’s silence is key throughout the play, and turns his inaction into the main action of the text itself. I was mainly interested in the way English translations of the traditional Requiem Mass were inserted into the play, so the silent requiem aeternam alluded to as Hamlet draws his final breath rather struck me. Silence and the unspoken seem naturally to couple both with religious expression in Hamlet, and in our attempts to understand the divine in a broader sense.

Silence in the Bible both fascinates and troubles me. The scriptures are full of challenging silences which often fall at points when we most need and desire explanation. One example which I heard recently in church is that in the story of Samuel. The Lord calls Samuel three times; three times, Samuel mistakenly believes the calls are coming from Eli, with whom Samuel is staying. This third time, however, Eli realises Samuel’s mistake and instructs him to listen to the Lord when he calls again. On the fourth call, God tells Samuel:

“Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle. On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. And I declare to him that I am about to punish his house for ever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them. Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering for ever.” (Samuel 1, 3.11b-14, NRSV)

This is a terrifying message to receive from God, yet Samuel gives no response. The narrative here, as in many other places, does not allow for the individual to respond to God, despite the harrowing nature of the exchange. Such silences are startling, and there is one particularly troubling one that I want to dwell on.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the most well-known yet challenging passages in the Bible. God asks Abraham to abandon his paternal love and instinct and commit one of the most unnatural and disturbing acts imagine: murder his own son. Abraham, it should be noted, is not a silent character throughout scripture. Just four chapters prior, he has successfully interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing the lives of the innocent. He’s certainly has no aversion to debating God when he perceives injustice in the Lord’s actions and requests. But here, Abraham does as God asks, and does it in silence.

I’ve had several responses to this over the years, and I still can’t quite make up my mind what I think about it. It’s often lauded as a beautiful and moving story of Abraham’s unrelenting faith in God, but this feels like particularly hollow theology to me. Are we meant to love and respect a God who would test one of his children with something so horrific? What kind of benevolent Lord would ask someone to kill their child, just to see if they would? Is God really that selfish and insecure? How is it loving, or just? The response in the end is indeed merciful – God tells Abraham to stop, and instead sacrifice a ram – but that hardly seems to negate the horror in the preceding verses.

Another interpretation is that Abraham knew God did not truly wish for Isaac to be killed, and so Abraham acted in the knowledge and faith that he would not have to complete the act. This, too, feels hollow. If this view is correct, then what do we even gain from the narrative? What are we learning? There’s nothing remarkable, in this interpretation, in what Abraham does, not in what God does. They’re both acting out a meaningless charade, both knowing that the other is not sincere.

This leaves me viewing this as one of the most uncomfortable silences in the Bible. It is the moment when God is the most unreasonable, the most warranting of the often unfair description of Him as capricious and tyrannical, and yet we are given nothing but silence in response to it. It makes God seem unjust and unmerciful, and presents Abraham as terribly inconsistent, sometimes arguing against God’s unjustness and something abiding by it. Yet still, despite these apparent problems with the story, I find myself drawn to it again and again as an example of…what, exactly? I don’t know, but I’m constantly drawn back to and intrigued by it in a way I simply cannot articulate.