Charles Beard was arguably the most widely read and influential American historian of the previous generation. He published alone or in collaboration something like 60 books and 300 articles. He taught at Columbia University, but resigned in protest for academic freedom and then helped found the New School of Social Research in New York City.
At the height of his fame, an admiring student asked Beard to summarize all he had learned about the meaning of history in something as brief as a pamphlet or single book. Dr. Beard replied that he could do it four sentences: (1) Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad with power. (2) The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine. (3) The bee fertilizes the flower it robs. (4) When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.
Sometime later, Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher/mathematician who taught at Harvard, given a similar challenge, answered in one sentence: “It matters and it has consequences.”
It was such a question that a certain Pharisee/lawyer put to Jesus one day during that final week in Jerusalem: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Such a request was often employed in Rabbinic circles of that day, because Rabbis and other religious leaders were expected to be so familiar with the complexities of Jewish law and commentary that they could somehow epitomize them in a single encompassing statement.
By the time of Jesus, the imperatives of the Torah, the five books in Scripture comprising the Jewish law, had been counted, numbered, and systemized to 633 commandments: 365 negative “Thou shalt not” commands – one for every day of the year; and 268 positive “Thou shalt” commands – according to the Rabbis, one for each of the 268 bones in the human body. So the lawyer asked Jesus which of these 633 commandments ranked as the greatest of all.
The request is akin to asking a musicologist or orchestral conductor to name the greatest work of music ever composed, to asking a literary critic to name the greatest novel ever written, to asking an art historian to choose the most outstanding work of art ever to be created, to asking the dean of sports columnists to name the most exciting World Series baseball game ever to be played, to asking a historian to name the most important scientific discovery or breakthrough that has ever occurred.
According to the Gospel record, Jesus responds to the lawyer’s question without so much as blinking an eye. He chooses two of the 268 positive “Thou shalt” commandments, two that begin “You shall love…” The first is found in Deuteronomy 6: 5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind”– in a word, with all you are. “This,” Jesus declares, “is the great and first commandment.”
Then turning to Leviticus 19: 18, he adds: “And the second is just as great as the first (for that is how the Greek translates), ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and prophets.” Everything, Jesus says in this brilliant summary, is grounded and defined in love; all else is secondary.
Yes, we are to love with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. With our entire being we are to love God and love each other. Love for God teaches us how to love our neighbor, and love of neighbor teaches how to love God.
With personal piety we may try to love God, but our desire is better expressed when we take the risks of loving the unlovely neighbor, when we stand at the crossroads of human need and offer hands-on help, when we reach out and stoop down, when our love is an affirmation of the worth of others and an effort to respect and ensure their dignity. We love God best when, having claimed God’s love ourselves, we give ourselves in love that other persons may love themselves and realize their God-given greatness.
We see this in Jesus, Whose love for God became love and confirmation of the dignity of the outcast and marginalized persons he met. In love Jesus fed the hungry, healed the sick, liberated the possessed, welcomed the troubled, and restored hope for the despairing, and, in so doing, expressed his love for the Father. He said, “When you do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you do it to me.”
I think it was Mother Teresa, one of Jesus’ contemporary disciples, who said: “You want to love God, then love your neighbor. All you would do for God, you can do for your neighbor. You want to praise God, then praise your neighbor. You want to meet God, then meet your neighbor. You want to serve God, then serve your neighbor. To make it easy for us to really love God, really be holy, Jesus again and again and again said the same thing: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’”
I do know it was Mother Teresa who told this story in the book Life In The Spirit, and with it I close:
Some time ago a Hindu gentleman was asked, “What is a Christian?” And he gave a simple answer: “A Christian is giving.” He was right, for from the beginning we find that it is really just giving. God loved the world so much that He gave His Son – the first great giving. Being rich He became poor for you and me. He gave Himself totally.
But that was not enough. He wanted to give something more – to give us the chance to give to God. So God made Himself the hungry person we meet, the naked person, the dying person before us, so that we could give to Him.
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And Jesus answered, A’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind.’ And the second is as great as the first, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and prophets” – and faith and life itself!