Love flows

Many generations ago, a lover of God and God’s word counted all the commandments God gave to Moses. We don’t know who it was, or when and where, nor how long it took, but the count became part of Jewish teaching: there are 613 commandments.[1] Other lovers of God and God’s word determined that there are 365 you-shall-not’s (one for each day of the year) and 268 you-shall’s (one for each bone of the human body). I’m sure that over the generations there have been plenty of smart kids who insisted on a recount – either of the text or the bones – but there were also equally smart parents and teachers who told them, “Go ahead, count the commandments.” They trusted that sooner or later the youngsters would discover that the tradition was not about mathematical accuracy, but poetic truth: We are to know God’s will and word in our bones, with our whole being, and we are to embody God’s commandments faithfully every day of our life.

Now when you visualize 613 commandments, what do you see? An endless laundry list or a wall covered with sticky notes? A giant stack of index cards you try to manage as you prepare for the big exam? Or do you see a long legal document with headings and subheadings and bullets and cross references and footnotes in small print?

I see a tree. I see a big tree with a massive trunk, thick branches, tender twigs, and leaves in various shapes and shades of green. I see a tree, rooted in the heavens, with its branches reaching down to earth, touching every imaginable moment of human life – birth and death, food and drink, what to wear, when to work and rest, how to worship, how to raise children, all of it. But who can remember all 613? And who can apply them faithfully in every circumstance? Teachers and sages were commonly asked to summarize the commandments in a succinct teaching: What is the essence of faithfulness to God?[2] Is there one commandment that represents the trunk of the tree? Can we identify one commandment in which all the others come together? Is there a way to comprehend God’s will in its entirety by embracing the tree near its root?

Rabbi Aqiba said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of Torah.”[3] The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement in his writings. In his letter to the Galatians we read, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4] And in Romans, Paul declares, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[5] The whole law summed up in a single commandment is the trunk of the tree from which all other branches emerge. Many Jewish and Christian teachers gave similar answers, identifying love’s demands as the heart of God’s law. Other voices in the Jewish as well as in the emerging Christian community urged greater caution, insisting that all commandments were of equal importance and that any attempt of ranking them was mere human presumption.

What did Jesus say? Did he come down on the side of those who saw a way to sum up God’s torah in a unifying principle, or on the side of those who urged equal attention to all commandments? We know by now that Jesus is very comfortable in the territory between all our various camps. We’re not surprised to hear him say,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”[6]

Every last little detail of the law and the prophets matters, he insists, but then he also calls his opponents hypocrites for giving to God a tithe of every herb from their kitchen garden, but neglecting the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.[7] Even the smallest stroke of a pen in the law matters, but woe to us if our attention to tithing mint and parsley keeps us from addressing injustice in our communities and the lack of mercy and hope in the lives of others and our own.

When we ask Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he doesn’t name just one. There are two commandments; they address what motivates our obedience; and the two are one. They are different, and yet they belong inseparably together: Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. The tree that is rooted in the heavens has the love of God pulsing through it. Love flows through the trunk and into every branch, into every twig and sprig and leaf: every commandment, even the smallest letter and stroke of a pen pulses with that love.

As creatures made in the image of God and called to live in covenant with God we are to know this love in our bones and embody it every day in every aspect of our life. How can I know this love in my bones? How do I love someone whom I can neither see nor touch? The saints who have gone before tell us that loving God involves our whole being – our wonder, our intellect, our will, our desire, our trust. Some things we can only learn in the arms of another; some things we can only learn with our nose in the book, others we can only learn with our hands in the dirt or our feet on the road. How do I learn to love the Lord? I believe it happens as I come to know myself as the Lord’s beloved. Saint Augustine wrote,

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.[8]

Late have I loved you, wrote the old man. Late did he come to know himself as God’s beloved. Late did he come to know the world and its brokenness as embraced and held by God’s vulnerable solidarity with us.

We have no trouble speaking of love. We love our Ma and Pa, we love chocolate and cheesecake, we love the boyfriend and the bride, we love our kids, and we love Jesus. When we speak of love we speak of affection, gratitude, and desire, but also of commitment, vulnerability, and more. Douglas Hare writes,

Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that [the commandment to love God] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.[9]

We look to Jesus on the way and we see God’s compassion at work. We look to Jesus on the cross and we see the love that embraces enemies as brothers and sisters and doesn’t let go. We look to Jesus and we come to know ourselves as God’s beloved; and once we know ourselves and each other in that way all that we are and do pulses with the love of God.


[1] Tanhuma 16b: “R. Simlai has said: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were spoken to Moses on Sinai; then David came and brought them to eleven [Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved (Psalm 15:2-5)]; Isaiah brought them to six [Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, they will live on the heights (Isaiah 33:15)]; Micah brought them to three [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)]; Amos brought them to two [Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba (Amos 5:4)]; Habakkuk brought them to one [Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)].”

[2] Sometimes the question was frivolous: Once a heathen came to R. Shammai and said to him, “I’ll become a convert if your can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai became angry and drove him off with a tool he had in his hand [I hope it wasn't a hoe or a hatchet!]. He came to R. Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel said to him,  “Whatever you dislike, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study [i.e., learn the commentary]” (b. Sabb. 31a).

[3] Kedoshim 4:12

[4] Galatians 5:14

[5] Romans 13:10

[6] Matthew 5:17-20

[7] See Matthew 23:23

[8] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, transl. Henry Chadwick, X.xxvii.38

[9] Douglas Hare, “Matthew,” Interpretation Commentaries, p. 260.