Love God. Love your neighbor as you love Yourself. Jesus sums up the commandments of God with these simple phrases. This is no easy task. Rabbis, the early scholars of the Jewish faith, had counted up 613 commandments in the Scriptures. 248 “Do’s” and 365 “Don’ts.” When asked “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus combines two with each other, and from which all other commandments flow. Love God. Love your neighbor as you love Yourself.
Love is the greatest commandment. When God gave the law to Moses so that the people Israel could live in relationship with God and survive the good and the bad days to come, love formed the basis of the law. In Deuteronomy, we read the famous “Shema” which is recited to this day whenever Jews worship. “Shema” is Hebrew for “Hear” which is how the commandment begins. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Love God with your whole self. Hold nothing back.
The people Israel did something very practical to remember God’s loving concern for them — something many Jews continue to do to this day. They write the words of the “Shema,” the commandment beginning “Hear, O Israel” on a tiny scroll and place them in leather boxes, known as phylacteries, worn around their wrists, and on their foreheads. They place them above their doors. These are visible, everyday symbols of faith which are passed on from generation to generation. A constant reminder of God’s love. A constant reminder to love God.
We too have symbols of our faith that we pass on to our children. The hymns we sing, daily prayers, a family Bible. Stories we tell. I have a plaque my mother gave me with the verse, “Nothing shall separate us from God’s love” written on it. These symbols help us to remember our faith even when we’d like to forget, even when we grow tired and weary and wonder if there’s any meaning beyond the symbol, when it feels like we’re just going through the motions.
Love God. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Notice that Jesus does not say to love others instead of yourself. He doesn’t say love others at the expense of yourself, but love your neighbor as yourself. Part of God’s commandment to love includes loving ourselves. Said differently, as we grow to love God, we do a better job caring for ourselves. The love Jesus talks about is not just self-sacrifice, not just catering to the needs of others and letting yourself go. It is a love that is ultimately self-fulfilling. In the process of loving God you grow to love yourself as well as others.
The Bible says that without love, we have nothing. Love is the source of obedience, the foundation for all the commandments, the basis on which we live out our faith. Where there is love, there is evidence of God’s hand in creation. Proof that God is a part of our lives.
There’s a song about love that talks about two people who see love as permanently fixed, “like a couple of stands on top of a wedding cake.” It’s true that love is enduring, but if we look for love in static, frozen events, were looking in the wrong places. Love is like an ever-flowing stream that runs from God to us, through us, and to the whole creation. If we try to freeze it or make it stand still, love escapes us. If we let it warm our hearts and minds, shape up our bodies and souls, there’s no stopping it. From generation to generation. Praise be to God.