This week I am amazed to have reached Thursday night without posting for you my “Monday Meditation.”
Well, I’ve never had a week quite like this. Saturday morning, at a synagogue maybe a mile from my home in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, a man armed with an assault rifle and several handguns came in and murdered eleven worshippers, shouting anti-Semitic statements.
He too was shot. He had his wounds treated by Jewish physicians at a local hospital, apparently continuing with his insults all the while.
I’m not getting a ton of work done. Walking down the street I’m prone to bursting into tears.
I have no idea whether the murderer professed my faith or not but, God knows, countless anti-Semitic murders and other atrocities have been done ostensibly in the name of Jesus.
That’s totally wrong.
I tell you that murder, and the hatred that drives it, is wrong on the basis of this Sunday’s lectionary Gospel.
The story of Mark 12:28-34, with variations, is found also in Matthew and Luke.
- Someone comes to Jesus.
- That someone asks what command is greatest or first, or how to inherit eternal life.
- Jesus states, or agrees, that the answer is found in the Jewish scriptures:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6)
- Then Jesus agrees, or states unasked, that a second command is ranked right up there with the first. Again the answer is from the Jewish scriptures:
… you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 9:18 NRSV)
There is a lot to say about these texts.
The Command to Love God
I could say quite a lot about how the command to love God encompasses the whole of a person in a growing relationship, not just an ideology or set of objective “truths.”
The Command to Love Neighbor
I could say quite a lot about how the command to love neighbor is almost always misquoted — we say “love your neighbor as you love yourself” but that is not the text of Leviticus or the Gospels.
We are to expand our sense of who our “self” is and enfold the neighbor: Love someone outside your body as part of your own self.
Augustine of Hippo
But instead I’ll tell you where my meditations were on Monday and have remained all week: St. Augustine of Hippo.
If you don’t know Augustine, it’s time to broaden your horizons. This 5th century African bishop was the single most influential thinker and writer in the history of Western Christianity.
And Augustine made a very big deal about those two commandments. That’s reasonable, right? I mean Jesus said they are the most important, following them is the path to eternal life, on them hang all the law and the prophets.
For Augustine these two commands are more than legal precepts by which to mold our behavior and by which we will be judged. They are descriptive of the nature of the life God created for us.
That is, live was intended to be lived oriented fully toward the love of God, and within that love of God to the love of neighbor. That’s the way of life that leads to true blessedness, real happiness, because it is in tune with our nature and the nature of the world.
Anything else is out of balance, and at best we limp along like a bike with broken spokes or a car with a flat tire. It leads to destruction. And that doesn’t have to be punishment. It’s just that life crashes and burns if it isn’t true to its creator’s intent.
The “Rule of Love” in Biblical Interpretation
But here’s what I want to share with you about Augustine and these two great commandments: For the great bishop and theologian, these commands provide a principle of biblical interpretation.
And biblical interpretation should be at the forefront of our minds, since in Matthew Jesus says
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:40)
So for Augustine these commands function the way a ruler does for someone trying to draw a straight line. Here’s how he put it:
Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. If, on the other hand, a man draws a meaning from them that may be used for the building up of love, even though he does not happen upon the precise meaning which the author whom he reads intended to express in that place, his error is not pernicious, and he is wholly clear from the charge of deception.” (On Christian Doctrine, 1.36.40)
That’s a big quotation. It comes down to two assertions that historically have been called “the rule of love” for biblical interpretation.
- If your interpretation of the Bible doesn’t lead you to greater love of God and neighbor, you got it wrong.
- If your interpretation does lead to greater love of God and neighbor, then even if you are wrong about the particular passage, you aren’t that far wrong. You certainly aren’t guilty of deceiving anyone.
The importance of the love of God and neighbor is so vast and all-encompassing that you can measure your understanding of any part of the Bible and the whole of the Bible by it.
If your interpretation leads you to hate your neighbor, insult your neighbor on the internet, harm your neighbor, God forbid to kill your neighbor, then you are interpreting the Bible wrong.
Proper interpretation of a passage must lead you to love your neighbor even if your neighbor is
- of a different religion than you,
- or a different ethnicity than you,
- or a different citizenship status than you,
- or of a different economic status than you,
- or a different sexual orientation or gender identity than you,
- or — believe it or not — of a different political party than you.
In this 21st century society where we all think we are able to understand the Bible and be right about every little thing about God and society, we need to take heed of Augustine’s Rule of Love.
Augustine was right. The whole Bible, and every part of it rightly understood, tells you to love God and your neighbor. No exceptions.
I’d love to send you every one of my Monday Meditations in my weekly(ish) email newsletter. Just scroll down to the black box with the orange button to subscribe.