Have you ever been in love?
I don’t mean the kind of sensible love of matched personalities and long marriages. I mean the can’t-catch-your-breath adolescent love of terrible poetry and teenage heartbreak. When you’re in this be-still-my-beating-heart kind of love, your mind can think of nothing else. It doesn’t matter if the object of your love is entirely inappropriate or unattainable, your devotion is complete.
When I was in early high school, back when a text message was the newspaper, my girlfriends and I would write long notes to each other in intricate code describing every detail of the interaction we had with the boy we had code named “Samoa” or “River”. Passing these notes was risky, but there was always the thrilling potential for the object of our love to actually intercept a note, decipher our code even the NSA couldn’t crack, and admit he returned our passion.
Now, some were slightly more developed romantically than I was at fifteen, and actually had relationships in which both parties felt this love. These lucky couples expressed their love through scrawling their initials on desks, or writing graffiti in the bathroom, or the most romantic of all, carving their initials in a tree in a local park.
When you’re in love, you want the world to know.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus his opinion of the greatest commandment, they were hoping to paint him into a legal corner. You see, if he chose ONE of the 619 religious laws on the books, it would mean he was degrading the rest of the laws. Well, instead of choosing one of these laws, Jesus sings the Pharisees a love song.
Well, not exactly a love song. You see, what Jesus says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” he is quoting part of the Schema, a sung Hebrew prayer. Waaaaay back in Jewish history, when God and Moses spent a lot of time talking, Moses told the Jewish people that God told him to tell the Israelites, “The Lord your God is one God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.” Moses went on to tell the Israelites they should keep this commandment on their doorposts. He might have been using a metaphor, but we religious folks can be pretty literal, and so even today in many Jewish homes, you find a Mezuzah on the door frame, a small box or tube that contains the text of the Schema–this prayer. Think of it as a form of carving initials in a tree trunk—Lord God hearts human kind.
The relationship between the Israelites and God may seem like a strange love affair since God tells the Israelites they should love him with all their heart. In my experience, I find it rarely works to tell someone, “Love me! Choose me!” However, when God passes on this commandment, he does it during a special time in Israel’s history.
The Israelites have recently been liberated from Egypt and are wandering around in the wilderness, waiting to get to the Promised Land. For most of the trip, they’ve been pretty grumpy, not at all sure they really wanted to be liberated in the first place. They are fairly disorganized and not sure how to behave.
God will soon give them a LONG list of rules to help them organize themselves, but first he wants to remind them of who he is and what their relationship will be like. Just like a new lover, eager to be known, God self-discloses, describes to the Israelites what he is like.
Our Lord is ONE God, not a confusing mass of petty Gods. He is a God who reaches out to us. He does not make us guess which of his manifestations he will be today. We take this for granted, after four thousand years of worshiping one God, but imagine what it must have been like to worship a pantheon of smaller gods who fought with each other for power, for pride. You would never be safe, never comfortable. In that kind of system, you have to offer gods constant sacrifice, constant manipulation. By declaring himself one God, our Lord let us know he was straightforward, trustworthy.
When God tells the Israelites that they should love the Lord their God, he is not being a bully. God is telling the Israelites good news—the relationship between God and people is based on love, not on what humans can do to appease the gods. All the other commandments and laws are really a subset of this one.
Jesus takes this a step further and adds, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Love between God and people leads naturally to love between people.
Let me give you an illustration of this phenomenon. Next weekend, I have the honor of performing the marriage ceremony for two people whose lives completely exemplify this principle.
They love God and have this very sweet, holistic, supportive love for each other, but their love does not stop there. Because of this amazing energy and goodness that flows between them, they have ended up as the emotional center of their group of friends. They bring chicken and biscuits to friends who are sick, take late night phone calls from friends in distress, and their dining room table is the center for many an abundant celebration of love and friendship.
This couple understands that love, even romantic love, is not something to be hoarded and parceled out carefully. Love is designed to push ourselves beyond our natural borders, to reach out to those around us—to hear their stories, celebrate life’s joys and mourn life’s tragedies with them.
As Christians, we don’t have the tradition of the Mezuzah to proclaim our love for God. Instead Jesus asks us to show our love for God, by loving our neighbor. Loving one another is our way of carving our initials in a tree. People of Emmanuel heart God.