Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment; and he answers with two: “[ . . . ] ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22.27-40 Revised English Bible)
It has always seemed to me that this is a good place to start when trying to model our lives on the life of Jesus. What did he teach during his earthly ministry? This is how he distilled what he thought was most important.
As a teacher, each time I prepare a lesson or a semester syllabus, I ask myself what one or two points does everything I want to say boil down to? It is the destination for the journey. In a very real sense, these two commandments are the goals Jesus sets out for his own teaching. He is a rabbi whose life and wisdom point to these two Great Commandments. It is the essence of it all.
The Great Commandments being the core of the teaching of Jesus’s earthly ministry, they necessarily have paramount importance to his disciples. They should be the essence of all that we are about as well. They should be central to our understanding of what it means to be united in the love of Christ Jesus and united as Christians who are members of Christ’s church.
No institution, ritual, practice — or anything — has legitimacy as a part of Christian life if it does not grow out of, and conform to, the Great Commandments. Here is a place where we should be literalist and demanding of ourselves and exacting in our behaviors. These commands are not lofty ideals to which individuals and communities should merely aspire. They are pressing demands made upon us right now. They are never in abeyance. They are never suspended on account of necessity, national security, or any other clear and present danger. There are no excuses that can be given that will set aside these core requirements upon us — period.
For many years, I had the privilege of living in, or near, Boston, Massachusetts. Not long after moving there, I travelled with a friend of mine from Japan to the town of Salem. For much of the history of Massachusetts, this was a town known for its role in trade with other nations of the world. Ships originating from there travelled far and wide to take American goods abroad and return with precious items made in far away lands. Nestled against the sea, it is a beautiful maritime community. But, at least as many, if not more, people know Salem for a different reason. The Salem witch trials that began in 1692 and resulted in nineteen people being put to death by the colony and the killing of another by being “pressed” (a means of torture used to extract confessions). It was, in part, to see the memorial to these twenty people who lost their lives that we made the journey by train on a cool autumn day.
The memorial is a beautiful small park bounded by a wall made of field stones. That wall is not so unlike many one sees when travelling around the New England countryside. It was different in one significant way, however. Around the inside of the rectangular space the wall enclosed were flat protrusions, looking very much like places to sit, or, perhaps, small altars. There at each one was the name of one of those who died. The individual memorials are arranged chronologically. At some there were flowers left by visitors. The trees themselves decorated the place of remembrance with leaves shed with the colors of the season. It is only one example of what happens every day; involving all of us. Tragedies great and small.
I made a point of pausing and noting each person’s name. Each one was someone to God. Each one, not so different from me – – with a world inside of them built upon their experiences, their thoughts, and their emotions. The spirit of God dwelled in each of them. And, in the fear of the moment, each life was brought to a horrible end, suffocated by rope or rock, denied the love that is the due and duty of us all.
I thought of the townspeople of 1692, and of the officials of the church and colony. They are, and were, as precious to God as all those they killed. It is perhaps most likely, in fact, that we can find characters like ourselves among them. Can we really judge them for what they did? Are we so free from guilt that we can cast a first stone? In some ways, I wished their names had been carved into the walls as well. I wanted to ponder their names and imagine their faces. They were scared. We all have the opportunity to know the taste of fear during our lives. Faced with an outbreak of evil (as they understood it), what were they to do?
They did as we humans so often do. They did not do as they were taught by Jesus the Christ. They did not remember that whatever actions or inactions they chose, those things needed to conform to the Great Commandments.
Did they love God with their all when they tortured and murdered God’s own creatures — God’s very children? Did they love those accused as they loved themselves?
At every step in the historical events surrounding the witch trials in Salem, I wonder what faith the people had in God that they feared God could be overturned by the devil. At every step in the legal process, I wonder if people their asked themselves if they would want to face an accusation in that way or be questioned and tortured in the manners they employed and tolerated in their midst? Did the hangman and the spectators who watched the lives ended on the gallows ever imagine themselves with a noose tightened around their own necks and being dropped to strangle and die? Part of me hopes that they did not. If they did, I wonder if they understood that to love your neighbor as yourself you need also to love yourself. Without caring about everyone who is given life by God there is really no caring for anyone. Atrocities against others are not so much born out of self-love, as some scriptures and other authors tell us, I think. It seems more likely to me that atrocities against others begin with self-hate.
It is safer to ask these questions about those who no longer walk in this world in which we live than it is to ask the same questions about ourselves. As I write these words, my own people, my own nation — the United States of America — has been waging wars in the Middle East and Asia in the name of “national security.” We Americans have killed more people than we are willing to count. We have imprisoned people without trial. We have “disappeared” people and murdered them with drones. All of this we have done, in part, because we are afraid. We say we are fighting terrorists. That may, or may not be, true. But what is, I think, beyond a doubt is that we show neither faith and confidence in God nor do we love our neighbors as ourselves.
Part of the reason why Jesus emphasizes the importance of loving our enemies is that we are all God’s children. And, it is more common than not, that we seek compassion and mercy no matter whether we are right or wrong. In the “spiritual math” taught to us by Jesus, self = other. Using the transitive principle, it must, then, also be true that other = self. We are worthy of the same love and consideration as another/another is worthy of the same love and consideration as am I.
If we would not want to be waterboarded, we should not allow it to be done in our society. If we do not want to be killed, we should not kill. If we do not want to be deprived of peace, we should not make war.
The key to all disunity, the key to every fragmenting of society, church, and creation itself can be traced to not living according to the principles of the Great Commandments. The key to our coming together and living as one in the love of God is found in living according to the principles of the Great Commandments.
Sometimes I wish we set aside days to commemorate our failures as Christians as well as our successes. Perhaps, in addition to remembering the saints, we might also set aside some days for remembering those who were faced with choices to put Christ’s teachings into action — but they compromised and failed miserably. These people are no less worthy of our love and compassion than those who are shining examples of people who lived the faith they espoused. We can learn from then just as well — maybe even better, sometimes.
On that day in Salem, when I first visited the memorial to those who had died during the witch trials, I spent more time at one of the individual memorials than I did at any other. It was at the place of remembrance for Giles Corey. In order to extract a confession from him, a piece of wood was laid over him and rocks were placed on the wood in order to make it difficult for him to breathe. They asked him again and again; each time adding more weight. I admire Giles because he would not confess in order to save his life. He kept his integrity to the very end of his time in this world.
In the face of fear (perhaps even death), what is our choice? We all have made choices before. We all have choices to make today. Will we remember the essence of Christ’s teaching. Will we put it into action?
As the disciples who follow Jesus, we who are members of the church are united in the mission to share the good news that God plays no favorites. We are united in the responsibility to proclaim that the love of God is for all. We are united in the challenge to exemplify the love of Christ in how we live our lives, as well as in the words that fall from our lips. The sad news is that we have often failed at the tasks entrusted to us. We have often missed the essence of the teachings of God With Us. But, we have this moment. We have this breath. We have the choice to love God, ourselves, and one another — now.