We are well into Mark’s gospel. The end of our liturgical year is near. Jesus is in Jerusalem. And his time for teaching is short. So in case you haven’t been paying attention, Jesus explains the whole meaning of life in two bite-sized lessons: Love God with your whole heart. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Sure we’ve heard the words over and over. But do we live them over and over? Is the message fresh and alive in us… shaping our thoughts and actions today? Or has familiarity bred neglect… fading into the wallpaper of daily routines and competing priorities… leaving love of God and neighbor as sweet sentiments reserved for Sunday mornings.
Jesus is telling us directly: Love is the total reason for our being… the sole purpose for all Creation and our unique place in it. Love defines us. It must be who we are and what we do. If not, we’re just taking up space and wasting time. Love God. Love neighbor. This is God’s great commandment, not his great suggestion.
Jesus does not pull any punches in describing the love we owe to God. It is to be all-consuming…with our whole heart, soul and being. But even at its most intense, our love for God is only a pale reflection of his love for us. God is the Great Lover. And while his love surpasses all understanding, Fulton Sheen gave us this insight: “God does not love us because we are valuable. We are valuable because God loves us.” This is the bridge from love of God to love of neighbor. God created and Christ died for the least attractive, least accomplished, most annoying neighbor we have.
God intimately knows the cast of characters that populate our days. They are his beloved children, too. No less precious to him at their most difficult, than we are at our most endearing. We are not asked to approve boorish behavior, haphazard hygiene or a host of bad habits. But we are unequivocally commanded to seek out and to love the divine spark, the image of God impressed on all of his children. Our neighbors are there to be loved, not to be endured, not to be tolerated, not to be accommodated…but to be actively loved as we love ourselves.
Learning the words is easy. Living them is literally the work of a lifetime. It is the centerpiece of our Christian journey. And it requires dedication, re-dedication and re-re-dedication… constantly focusing, staying on task, recommitting and recharging. It is demanding, but it is not drudgery. Love is the ultimate healthy habit. But no matter how we labor at love, we don’t create it. It is a gift from God meant for us to nurture and return, given to us to pass along in the spirit of the Great Giver… the Great Lover of all.
But don’t confuse Christ’s lesson of love with the sentimental moonshine that popular culture teaches us to expect. Jesus knew precisely what he was asking when he summarized what God expects of us. He knows our obligations, our limitations, our conflicts. Loving God and neighbor does not dismiss any of these realities. It puts them in perspective. Large or small, we must bring love to the tasks of today. We work in the love of God. We eat, sleep and rise in his presence. Every task is an opportunity to return and to spread his love. The joy, the sorrow, the boredom, the routines of our day: all are there to be undertaken in love. As Mother Teresa reminds us: “It is not how much we do that is pleasing to God, but how much love we put into the doing.”
Love God. Love neighbor. Learn it. Live it. Rejoice in it… as God rejoices in you.
The Reverend David Sellery, Episcopal Priest, Author, and Coach. Fr. Sellery presently serves as Priest-in-Charge, St. John’s Salisbury, CT. Fr. Sellery has excelled at using new media to increase outreach beyond the Church doors via his website, blog posts, and podcasts.
Image: By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (LOVE Montreal Uploaded by tm), via Wikimedia Commons