What is Love?


December 22

Read Mark 12:13-34

 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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.’ (Mark 12:29-30)

We hear talk about something called ‘love’ almost unceasingly.  Apparently, people know what they mean by this word. ‘Love’ means something along the lines of: “affirming and accepting another for who they truly are.” Howard Jones, who undoubtedly knows something about all this, says, “Love is letting each other be who we are without fear of censure.” When we care for, cherish and affirm another person, without demanding that they be just like us, then we are loving them. When we receive this kind of attention, we are being loved. ‘Love’ is what will make our world a better place, our society more just and our lives more meaningful and enjoyable. ‘Love’ is set in binary opposition to ‘hate’ and ‘judgment’, which have the reverse affect on the world, society and our lives. ‘Jesus’ obviously was for ‘love,’ we are told. ‘Love’ wins.

I am not sure that I disagree with the definition and assertions above. I could probably affirm that ‘love’, if consistently applied, would make our society a more just, or at least more tolerable, one. But I am afraid that that ‘love’ is just a bit too abstract for me. Moreover, I am quite sure that Jesus meant something different, more concrete and more demanding, when he spoke of ‘love’. For Jesus, ‘love’ is only comprehensible in light of the One God who has staked his claim on our life and the life of every human being. Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God.

A scribe comes to Jesus to ask, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus replies by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And 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.’”

It is vitally important to notice that when Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment—that is, what we are morally required to do— Jesus’ response begins not with a commandment but a statement about what is, not with an imperative but an indicative. For Jesus the commandment to love can only be understood in light of the truth that there is one God; the Lord of Israel alone is God. This God is unwilling that we share our affections and allegiance with any other god; for he and he alone is God. Because he alone is God, he lays exclusive and exhaustive claim to every aspect of our lives. From this theological truth flows the command: Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

We can talk all day about ‘love’, but if our love-talk does not take place in the context of a deep awareness of the exclusive and exhaustive claim of God upon our lives, then we are not talking about what Jesus is talking about. We may say many profound and good and heart-warming things, but these thoughts won’t touch the reality Jesus speaks of when he says “love.”  It would be like me talking all day about the meaning of marital love without ever mentioning the concrete demand that my relationship with Joette (my wife) makes upon my affections.

For what Jesus means by “love” is not an abstract ‘love’. It is terribly concrete. It is not undemanding approbation, but a jealous and demanding kind of thing. God wants it all, Jesus tells us—the deepest affections of our hearts, the most exalted flights of our souls, the highest thoughts of our minds and the greatest strength of our wills. To change the metaphor: if our lives were a house, he wants to be enthroned in every room, not just the living room but the kitchen, the den and the bedroom too. When we start to let him have all this territory—well, that is love as Jesus understands it.

Jesus tacks on another commandment to the first, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” People who talk about ‘love’ a lot like to start here. Jesus doesn’t. Jesus begins with the love of God and he expects love of others to flow from that first, great love. After all, Jesus can’t talk about love without also talking about God. We can’t begin to love others, in the way Jesus means love, until we begin to yield ourselves to God.

Where does this leave us? Frankly, it leaves us in Advent for just a little while longer—the time of waiting and preparation, the time of preparing while we wait and waiting while we prepare. How do we prepare? Simply, by examining every feature and facet of our lives—what our hearts love, what our minds dwell on, what our wills choose, and what we do with our bodies—and asking ourselves where our allegiances stray from that first, great love of God. In identifying these, we then pray for a greater measure of the Holy Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts from his boundless store (Romans 5:5).

Come, Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire!


Christological Addendum

My claim above is that we can’t talk about love Christianly without also talking about God. Anything else is, from Christian point of view, an abstraction. It occurs to me, however, that we still aren’t being concrete enough. Yes, it is true that we can’t talk about love without talking about God. This is straightforwardly Jesus’ point in the above passage. But we must move a step further in order to keep pace with the rest of the New Testament. St. Paul writes that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Likewise, St. John tells us, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). What point am I making here? Quite simply, we can’t talk about love without talking about God, and we can’t talk about God without talking about Jesus. (We confess this latter point about the inseparability of God and Jesus every week in the Nicene Creed when we say that he is “of one Being with the Father.”) Love, as a Christian concept, is inseparable from God’s love for lost sinners in sending Jesus Christ to die for us on the cross. That is the very definition of love. Anything else is ‘love’–an abstraction. I would dare say, we are not going to make any progress in fulfilling the command to love God and neighbor until we fix our eyes on the love of the Crucified Lord and have our hard hearts melted by what we see there.


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