“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” So says St. Paul.
You can read passage after passage in the Bible, and more often than not you wind up wondering, “Just what the bleep am I supposed to do with that?” So isn’t it a relief this week to come across a passage that tells us that all you’re supposed to do is love others?
Actually, a lot of people knew that. For Jesus it was part of the great commandment (Matthew 22:35-40). But Jesus and Paul were not the only teachers to sum up scripture that way.
It was a popular teaching in their day. The rabbis of their time loved to challenge each other to come up with their own summations. Once a non-Jew came to Rabbi Hillel and said “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary; go now and study” (Tractate Shabbat, 31a). Other rabbis liked to quote the prophet Micah: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8; Tractate Makkot, 24a)?
In fact the ancient rabbis, Jesus, Paul and later leaders of the early Church were so convinced that love was THE meaning of the Bible that they didn’t hesitate to play fast and loose with passages that didn’t look loving to them. St. Augustine said that a hateful-looking passage couldn’t be literally true. It must be an allegory or parable or some other figure of speech (Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, 3.15.23; 3.10.14).
The idea that literalism is the only Christian way to read the Bible is actually a pretty recent notion, and a sad one, because it opens the Bible to all sorts of hateful interpretations. These rabbis, Jesus, Paul and St. Augustine knew better. The meaning of the Bible had better be love. If a passage doesn’t look like love, they said, then make it look like love. They were all on the same page about that.
That’s the page we should be on too. If you love others as yourself, says Paul, you’re living Biblically. Don’t fret about the rest.
Who knew it was that easy? I guess all we need to do now is hug each other, when it’s safe to hug again, share a meal, sing “Kumbaya,” and go home.
But it’s not that easy, is it? After all, isn’t loving your neighbor as yourself the one commandment you are guaranteed to break every day, along with loving God, your nearest neighbor? We know we’re not lying when we daily confess, “We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 79).
We know, too, that love means standing up for others who need our support. So that means we’re going to make other people mad at us. And we might have to get mad too, when we see others mistreated. And of course we are not likely to agree, even within ourselves, over who needs our support the most. Sometimes loving your neighbor as yourself means we can’t all sing “Kumbaya.”
A few months ago, when outrage spilled into the streets of Indianapolis, our Diocese encouraged our clergy to take turns joining with other faith leaders to make our Cathedral a refuge for demonstrators, and for the young adults serving as unofficial medics for the demonstrators. I felt obliged to take part. It certainly made some people angry. But that was what love drew from me.
One of my dearest friends decided earlier this year that his vocation was to become a police officer, and knowing his story, I also feel called to support him in that decision. It helped to learn that he, at least, understood and supported what we were doing at the Cathedral. He wants to help reimagine what an officer’s job description might be, including reallocating public funding to alternative ways of intervening in peoples lives. Despite his aspirations, there are people who denounce him for his decision. But I stand with him. That, too, is what love draws from me.
I can’t stand the phrase, “some very fine people on both sides,” mostly because I don’t trust the guy who said it, especially his motives. We are not being “very fine people” if we see affirming others’ dignity as a threat to our own. What I see instead are not “very fine people,” but very conflicted people on many sides, and I’m one of them, trying in love to stand up in different ways for people who most need my support. In some ways, it’s actually easier to try to practice this than it is to find words to talk about it. But practicing it, or at least trying, is hard enough, and it will always make somebody mad.
Who knew that this easy-sounding phrase would prove so difficult to live, maybe impossible? But that, says Jesus and Paul and lots of rabbis and every saint, is what we were made for. Love is the fulfilling of every law, the fulfilling of every effort we have ever made, even when we’re failing at it.
The only reason this is still good news is because there’s still a love that doesn’t depend on our success. Paul knew this. Out of a misplaced love for his inherited way of life, he persecuted the early Christian movement. Then the risen Jesus showed up and lovingly knocked him off his feet to show him a different way to love. It didn’t change his personality—just read his letters to see how scrappy he is. But if we pay attention we also see the love that continued to move him in spite of his character flaws. What really set him off were other Christians who wanted Christ’s church to be less inclusive. Love for the excluded fueled his contentiousness.
If somebody as scrappy as Paul can be transformed by love, transformed enough to write words like those we just heard (plus that popular chapter from 1 Corinthians), then people like us can be transformed too. You can aim to be “the one who loves another,” because your life is surrounded and filled by the One who always loves another, which of course may sometimes knock you off your feet.
“The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” That’s what God does, always, especially in Jesus, and in us as his risen Body. It may indeed knock us off our feet. Practicing it will make both your head and your heart spin. But it’s still our fulfillment, and it never leaves us alone. Thanks be to God!