The Great Commandment

One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Mark 12:28-31

The scribe asks Jesus what is the first of all the commandments, and Jesus answers with two. In both cases, the command is to love, first God and then our neighbor. We know that Jesus will explain who our neighbor is with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable the Samaritan and his victim are strangers, even hostile aliens, to each other. Our neighbor, then, is everyone and anyone who needs us.

This is not, however, what we spontaneously think of as love. For us love is largely an affect based on affinity. We love, at least some of the time, members of our family, and we love those to whom we are attracted in some way or other. We think of love as an experience into which we fall, drawn by a “force” that is outside of and beyond us. Much thinking about love takes pains to distinguish such an “erotic” experience of love from agape, a commitment to the good of the other. This is how, so we surmise, that the Samaritan can develop the will to act on behalf of another no matter how alien and despite any lack of gratification. This is the love by which we might imagine that Brother Theodore James Ryken and others desired to move to far away places, to the frontier, in service of the souls of those who had heard nothing of the gospel, who were up to now abandoned by the world.

Yet as Ryken describes his conversion, he speaks of a process that involves: being put in his place, that is coming to realize more fully and honestly who he is; turning toward God, which means away from what is not God; falling in love with God; and putting himself in God’s service. In examining this description we can come to see that Jesus is actually giving one great commandment in two parts. Although love of God and love of neighbor can, in our lives, seem even at times to be contraries, they are really one reality.

Something in Ryken’s life has “pulled him up short.” Reality has intervened in his life in such a way as some of the falsehood and illusion by which he lived has been shown for what it is. To a new and significant degree, he has become more grounded in his “ordinary” self, that is in the person he is whom God has created. While this experience is at first deflating and humbling, it then gives rise to the truth of God’s love for him. This is the experience of falling in love with God. It is what the Psalmist speaks of when saying: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful.” (Psalm 139:14) We live, for the most part, at a distance from our actual life. When we touch, even painfully, the truth of our being, we experience the awe of which the Psalmist speaks, and we are moved to gratitude and praise. We now know, not just think about, God’s love for this poor, ordinary being that we are. This is the experience of falling in love with God.

Such an experience of the truth of our own life and being, however, is, as Jan van Ruusbroec calls it, “a love common to all.” Who we are most deeply is a call. To recognize and begin to realize that call is a mission. As Ryken puts it, “I put myself at God’s service.” To love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength is not something we can do with our functional or executive will. It is rather a response by our transcendent will, or what Adrian van Kaam terms our “love-will,” to the One who made us and loves us into being We do not generate the love ourselves, rather we begin to realize the love in which we live and participate. If what we recognize at such a moment is truly the love of God, then we shall simultaneously recognize that God loves everyone in this same way. Everyone is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” What this evokes in us is a profound sense of respect, caring, and tenderness. These are the hallmarks of being in God’s service.

For Jesus, it is only in the love of God that we really love our neighbor. Loving God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength is to love our neighbor, as Jesus says, “in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:26). So much of our work, and even our desire to care for others, is to some degree an attempt to become worthwhile ourselves. Yet, Jesus speaks of the possibility of a loving service that is pure instrumentality of the love and will of God. Ryken longs to live himself and to gather companions who will love God first and fully and then, in that love, realize its reality as mission. Loving God and our neighbor is not yet another task or demand. It is rather a call to awakening to the truth of things, that we ourselves and our world are “charged with the grandeur of God.”

We must continually remind ourselves that the first commandment requiring us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind is indeed the first. I wonder if we really believe this. It seems that in fact we live as if we should give as much of our heart, soul, and mind as possible to our fellow human beings, while trying hard not to forget God… But Jesus’ claim is much more radical. He asks for a single-minded commitment to God and God alone. God wants all of our heart, all of our mind, and all of our soul.
Henri Nouwen, The Living Reminder

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