If you could ask Jesus a question what would it be? What’s on your mind, what’s your pressing concern that you’d bring to Jesus?
Of those who had the opportunity to do this, who met Jesus in Palestine, plenty of them just messed about. Before our gospel reading the Sadducees have an oh-so-clever academic puzzle that they’re longing to put to the new teacher. The Pharisees have been trying to catch Jesus out – perhaps he’ll put a foot wrong and we can report him!
In Mark 12:28 one of the scribes comes near, and hearing that Jesus has given a good answer, he brings the question that is on his heart. This man is genuine: ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Or sometimes translated the greatest.
Jesus replies: ‘The first is: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’. This was a well-known phrase. It’s found in the Hebrew Bible, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, it’s called the Shema after the phrase with which it begins in Hebrew. The Rabbis saw it as the core principle behind the Old Testament law – put God at the centre, serve him with your whole being, make him the basis and ground of life, and everything else will follow.
From that flows the answer to the question that the seeker hadn’t asked: ‘The second commandment is this: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The teacher of the law agrees. Serving God and loving your neighbour is the heart of the law. This is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. God does not want dead animals but living love. It’s not a condemnation of ritual as such – Israel’s temple faith recognised that forgiveness often needs an outward physical grounding – but it is saying that worship is in its proper place when it is focused on God and results in service to one’s neighbour.
In v. 34 Jesus approves: ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God’- wonderful. We could end there. Who could disagree? After all, isn’t this principle the irreducible core shared by all religions? Doesn’t every faith teach us to love God and love our neighbour?
Well, actually, not quite. In other faiths broadly similar things are said, up to a point. I remember once when I was waiting for a flight, and to try and occupy myself I wandered through the airport. In a quiet corner I found the prayer room – fascinating place, it had a kind of giant chest of drawers up against one wall. Each drawer had a different religion in it – so you could set up an altar or lay out a Muslim prayer mat. On the wall was a big poster – you may have seen this elsewhere – it has symbols representing the various religions and their equivalent to the Golden Rule.
Except when you read closely, they’re not quite equivalent. I think whoever has created this poster has looked into the various faiths to try and find whatever they say that is closest to the Golden Rule. The results are interesting. Although many people imagine so, in reality the faiths are not identical. For starters, the place of an ethical command like this will vary in importance – it may be central or not particularly what a follower of that religion would describe as the heart of their faith. So there’s a big caveat here: what I’m about to say is not in any sense comparing the full range of religious beliefs – and it may be that here are other sayings out there with which the person who put this poster together was not familiar.
But even comparing what seems to be like with like, there are real differences. For instance Eastern religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Bahai and Zoroastrianism are here described as saying ‘Do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.’ It’s Google’s motto: Do no evil. Now that would certainly be recipe for a decent enough world. If we all lived like that there would be a significant improvement in society. But it’s essentially negative – do no harm, which is quite a way from love.
Some faiths emphasise interdependence. Under Taoism it says ‘Regard your neighbours gain as your gain, and their loss as your loss.’ There’s wisdom in this, the religion of the First Nations, or perhaps an enlightened self-interest. Maybe this is the only way to get some people to take seriously care for creation – for if we ruin the world we lose our life support system. But it’s not yet love.
Islam goes a step further: ‘Wish for others what you wish for yourself’ – although one might quibble that merely wishing is not enough, we need to act. The Jain appear to go further than Judaism or Christianity: ‘One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated’, and apparently you can see the Jain walking slowly down the Indian street, sweeping ahead of them so as not to tread on a bug.
Except that treating others as you’d like to be treated is not the same as love. Love recognises that the other is, well, other. We’re not the same, our needs are different, love is more complex than projecting yourself into someone else’s situation. It is important that we learn to love and accept ourselves – this is an important part of what Jesus said, love your neighbour as yourself – but it doesn’t mean you should imagine your neighbour is the same as yourself.
You may have noticed that I like cake. If you want to keep the Vicar happy, the simplest way to do it is to feed him. And that affects the way that I show love. I might not be a particularly huggy person, but if I want to show someone love, I feed them. Entertaining is a way of showing that people matter to me.
But I have learnt that not everyone looks at a steak and kidney suet pudding with unalloyed joy. What for me is the language of love may be for another person ‘How on earth am I going to eat that?’ or ‘Bang goes the diet’.
One of the most important lessons I learnt on a parenting course was the concept of love language. This is the idea that there are four broad ways of showing love – and by the time we’re about 5 years old each one of us has developed a preference. So a parent may lavish gifts upon their child, because that’s how the parent appreciates love, when all the child wants is the spoken word: ‘I love you’. The parent who feels rejected when their child wriggles out of hugs might need to learn to give generously of their time instead.
If we are not to be like the cat which kindly deposits dead frogs in its owner’s bed, then we need to ask: ‘What would x like?’ ‘What actually is a loving action in this situation?’ Maybe a manager needs order and clarity in their world but the people they are supervising long for creativity. We’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan that people who are freed from dictators don’t automatically long for Western democratic values. Perhaps we feel they ought, but sometimes they don’t.
Which brings us to the question: Is what we want, what is best for us? In what sort of situation is it appropriate for love to be tough?
A child may be told that you’ll have to watch the rest of Strictly on catch-up because it’s school tomorrow. We understand that love doesn’t mean doing what we want. Falling in love does not mean it’s ok to break marriage vows. The feeling of love doesn’t justify every action. For love is prepared to make sacrifices. Love doesn’t just consider what makes me happy but considers everyone who is involved – even the effect on society if a particular law is broken. Love is an emotion, but it is also an action, a decided state of mind, a passionate commitment.
What then does it mean to love those with whom we profoundly disagree? If two groups of people have opposing views about what it means to thrive as humans, how do they love one another? This cuts to the heart of debates in the Anglican Communion, to the challenges of a multicultural society in liberal democracies.
In Jesus we see a deep commitment to keep talking, to stay in some sort of relationship. Hate thrives in isolation – existing in an internet echo chamber allows you to demonise the other. Encountering those who are different, speaking and listening, eating together if the rules allow, means that differences can begin to be held in love. If we disagree with someone, let’s not cut ourselves off but stay in relationship.
That’s why I think the Golden Rule is misnamed. It’s not a rule. Not ‘When this happens, do that’. In applying it, we need to work out in each circumstance what it means to love someone. Not just to do no evil, not just to wish good, not even to treat them the way we’d like to be treated. But to love them. This needs discernment and relationship.
So perhaps we’d be better using the term Jesus himself used: ‘A commandment’. For a commandment comes from God to us. It was given once in the Old Testament, repeated and affirmed by Christ. Jesus himself showed us in his death the ultimate extent of its meaning, as he gave his life for his friends. It is interpreted for us each day by the Holy Spirit – and as we love God and love our neighbour as ourself, let us turn to the Holy Spirit for wisdom and strength. The Golden Commandment points us to a life lived in relationship with God and with one another. It is indeed the summary of the law – because it points to relationship. Amen.