A very smart young man reminded me, as I was tearing my hair out over how I could blog about the faith’s implicit morality being the sinner that I am (no sarcasm or irony intended), that Jesus’ core moral teaching is not in the Sermon on the Mount but in Mark 12:29-31.
Asked what is the most important divine commandment, Jesus replies:
“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”This is also found in Matthew, but this text seems closest to the original, because it begins with the most revered Hebrew prayer.*
The observation is particularly on point because both of these commandments, often called “great,” are not original inventions of Jesus or the apostles. The first draws from Moses’ first commandment. The second is found variously in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
The more I think about this, the clearer it is that Jesus was not a moralist, but rather someone who invited people to look at what they knew in a new way. Jesus’ point is to look at those moral pointers that have been set in front of us with new lenses and a new focus, love.
Take the first commandment. A Jesuit of whom I have heard is said to lament that he does not feel as attracted to God as much as he does to women.
Let’s imagine that for a moment. Let’s imagine that we felt about God as we feel about the opposite sex. Let’s imagine that we sought to see God “naked” and in bed with us, becoming intimately one with God in a pleasurable explosion of fulfillment and peace, no longer alone in the universe but in unity with another.
Wow! That’s what ecstatic contemplative monks must experience!
Of course, attraction, lust, sexual intimacy is never as 100% hot as that second or third time when the awkwardness is gone and the rhythm is right. Then sex mellows; if we are lucky it mellows into love.
If we are lucky we find the person with whom, from time to time, we make love. Briefly we experience again that intense connection that brought us together and this reminds us why we have given ourselves over to that other person, quirks and all.
Remember when you were first in love with that special person, how you loved everybody, forgave everybody, saw beauty everywhere? That’s where the second commandment would come in if we could love God as we love the other sex.
Loving one’s neighbor as oneself would be easy if we felt loved, thus loved ourselves intensely and the love just overflowed, like coffee poured out a little too eagerly.
But OK, we don’t, or at least I don’t. I fail miserably at loving God and my neighbor. Every day. Even every hour. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is the reality, even as we keep this goal in front of us.
Maybe we need to make love with God first, then in a similar way build love with others.
* “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” found in Deuteronomy 6:4, and known even today for its first two words as Shema Yisrael שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל . (In transliterated Hebrew, with the "ch" pronounced with that Spanish jota rendition, as in "Bach": Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Elocheinu Adonai Ecḥad).