I didn't quite finish the Jesus chapter on Jesus' followers but wanted to keep moving rather than go for days trying to get inspired to finish it. So I move on to the next chapter, on the Sermon on the Mount and some of Jesus' miscellaneous teaching.
The three Synoptic Gospels all present a scene during the last week of Jesus' earthly mission when he is asked what the greatest commandment is. His answer, while not unheard of at the time, has provided the cornerstone of Christian ethics for the last two thousand years. "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt 22:37-40).
It is indeed possible to see all the teaching Jesus gave while he was on earth as the working out of these principles into everyday life. These are the two great absolutes of Christian living. For almost any other specific guideline in the Bible, we can think of an exception, a situation where a higher principle can trump another one. But these are the highest values--love God and love neighbor. They never come into conflict with each other, and there is no situation where God would want us to make an exception to the rule.
What does it mean to love God or to love your neighbor? I proposed in the previous chapter that to follow Jesus means to submit to his will over any competing authority or interest. Loving God with all one's being means that God's will takes precedent over family or any other human authority.
But we must be careful not to trick ourselves into thinking God's will conflicts in any way with the love of our neighbor. Justice can actually be an expression of love, when we are trying to steer our children in the right direction or when we are protecting society from someone who is dangerous. In the end, most of us are not even in a position as individuals to administer justice. But we are constantly in a position to show love to others.
The danger is when we use the command to love God as an excuse not to love our neighbor. For example, some might say that loving God means to hate homosexuals and thus that in this instance the command to love God trumps the love of our "enemy." This is nothing less than a trick of the Devil, using the idea of God's will as an excuse to get out of doing God's will, which is to love even our enemy. Jesus would have none of it.
Others have a tendency to turn the love ethic into rules. Loving God means to follow a set of dos and don'ts and to follow them without exception. But to reduce loving God to a set of rules is to go against the very example of Jesus himself. It was not his style to treat rules as exceptionless absolutes, but to make exceptions to general rules because loving people in concrete ways was more important than always following the rules.
The best example is probably when his disciples were picking some grain on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. Some Pharisees complained to Jesus that they were breaking the Ten Commandments, working on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-24). What is interesting is that Jesus doesn't deny it. He doesn't say, "That's not working on the Sabbath." He doesn't say, "The Sabbath is about worship, not about working."
What he says is that there is a time to make exceptions to the rules because loving people concretely often trumps the rules, in this case the Sabbath rule. The example he gives is a time when one of the high priests gave David and his fighting men some of the sacred bread from the sanctuary, something that was completely inappropriate because it belonged only to the priests (Lev. 24:9). There is no wiggling out of this conclusion because Jesus himself said it was unlawful (Mark 2:26). Jesus' point is clear: in concrete situations, loving others will sometimes take precedence over keeping rules, even when we're talking about one of the Ten Commandments!
What does it mean to love our neighbor? ...