The Gospel account of Jesus’s teaching on the Great Commandment is found in Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28. These accounts differ on small points: in Matthew, the expert on the Jewish law seeks to test Jesus when he asks his question; in Mark, his question is sincere; in Luke, it is Jesus who questions the expert. In all three, however, the answer is the same: no single commandment is the greatest. The Torah hangs not on one, but on two essential prescriptions: love for God, and love for neighbor.
The second “great commandment” is fairly straightforward. Leviticus 19:18 says, “you must love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.”
One could perhaps ask, as the lawyer does in Luke 10:29, “And who is my neighbor?” But we know, as he certainly must have known, that this is a worthless question. The real question, as Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, is how can we demonstrate love for our neighbors? These United Methodist youth, helping with flood cleanup in Dubois, PA, certainly get it!
The commandment to love God comes from Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” While many interpretations of this commandment find here three different ways of loving God, that does not seem to be the intent of the passage in Deuteronomy. The heart (lebab in Hebrew) is the center of the will: loving God with all your heart means loving God as much as you can. To love God with all one’s being (Hebrew nephesh should not be translated as “soul;” it refers, as the CEB translation “being” indicates, to the whole of oneself) is another way of saying that one is to love God entirely. The last word, typically translated “strength” or “might,” is me’od in Hebrew; it means literally “much” or “very.” We are to love God with our muchness–again, as much as we are possibly capable of loving!
In the Greek of the New Testament, however, and in the minds of early Christians influenced by Greek thought, this command does become a threefold (or more) depiction of loving God with every aspect of one’s being. The KJV of Mark 12:30 reads,”And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” The heart (Greek kardia) is in Greek as in Hebrew the center of the self, or the will–the choosing, deciding aspect of the person. The soul (Greek psyche) can refer (unlike Hebrew nephesh) to the immaterial, spiritual part of the person. One’s might (Greek hischus) could be regarded as relating to one’s physical, material self. Which leaves the Greek word dianoia, referring to thoughts and intentions, commonly translated as “mind.”
What might it mean to love God with all one’s mind? At the opening of his theological treatise Proslogium, Saint Anselm of Canterbury prays,
I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate thy sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree thy truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe,—that unless I believed, I should not understand.
Indeed, Anselm writes, he had at first intended to title this theological work “Faith Seeking Understanding.”
In a comment on last week’s blog (“‘The wrath of God was satisfied’?,” August 6. 2013), one person wrote in part:
This is the main paradox of theology. The attempt to explain something only leads to further confusion. The simplicity of the faith is destroyed by a series of complex negotiations with the truth in order to produce a palatable, watered down version of an AMAZING gift of grace which is freely given (not coerced). So many want to say what the Gospel isn’t to make it more tolerable so that we can get people to buy in on that soft marginal basis.
St. Anselm would say amen to part of this. We come to know and love God first through God’s love and grace showered on us, freely and without regard to our worthiness. God loves us first. As a Christian believer, I came to know that love of God through my experience of Jesus’ love and forgiveness. No one is every argued into the kingdom: all of us are loved in. The experience of God’s grace through faith in Christ comes first. When I forget that essential order, I trust that you all will join in reminding me.
But that said, having experienced God, we seek to talk meaningfully and intelligibly about what has happened to us. Our experience is not rational–that is, it cannot be reduced to reason. But it is surely not irrational, either.
God created the universe, which though vast and mysterious is yet comprehensible and knowable: so much so that the intelligibility of the universe, which is describable by mathematics, is one strong demonstration of the reasonableness of faith in God.
God comes to meet us in Scripture: in words, in texts, in songs and stories and proverbs and parables that engage our intellect. Surely such a God is not offended by our questions about God’s own will and nature –ultimately and finally unknowable and indescribable as God is.
In Anselm’s language, we do not believe because we understand; however, believing, we strive to understand: faith seeks understanding. Theology and Bible study can be tools of human arrogance, attempting to water down or control the uncontrollable, inexpressible being of God–but they need not be. They may also be a way of loving God, as Christ commands us to do, with all our minds.