The Sole Meaning of Love

The Rev. Matthew PottsThe Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. Photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Gazette.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript from the service audio)

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.

So in our house, we say, "I love you," a lot. We tell one another, my kids and Colette and I, we tell one another that we love each other a lot. It's the first thing I say to the kids in the morning and the last thing I say to them at night and the same for them to me. But each of them, as you know, you'll all get to know Cami, Sammy, and Danny as they grow up, each of them responds to these affirmations of love in different ways. When we tell Cami, our oldest, that we love her, she says, "I love you more than you love me."

And we say, "No, that's not possible," and then it becomes like an argument, right?

When we tell Sammy that we love him, he says to us—he has a metaphorical mind, he thinks in images—and one time he said to Colette, "Mommy, I love you so much that if you put my love for you in our house, it would spill out the windows and bust open the doors."

Danny, the youngest, those of you who have heard stories about Danny already from these sermons know he's kind of a crack up. Danny hearing Sam's expression of love, just says, "I love you more than anyone in the world. I love you more than anyone in the universe." He was saying this to Colette, "I love you so much. No one loves you more than me. I have the most love of anyone all for you."

Colette of course felt very warm hearted about this and then Danny walked away and he said, "By the way, don't tell Dad. I told him the same thing."

This teaching that comes out of Mark is the heart of Christian teaching. It was mentioned in our Faith and Life Forum this morning, as the heart of Christian teaching by one of our participants. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself." What's at stake in Mark's passage this morning is who to love and how much. It should spill out of the windows, right? More than anything else. Jesus names this as the key to everything else to that big book in your pews, that big, difficult, complicated book. Jesus says, "This is the key. This teaching. Love is the key."

Those of you who have been coming to church this fall know I've been struggling with the gospel of Mark. There have been some hard teachings in the gospel of Mark so far this term, but I read them through this key, back from this moment that I knew was coming in Mark, where Jesus was going to say, "Everything I have said and everything all the prophets have said, the key is love." This passage, unlike those, goes down easy. Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself, that important third part of the equation, and on this hang everything else.

When I was preparing for the sermon, it struck me that in this passage, after Jesus says this teaching, which goes down easy, it says, "No one dared to speak. After they heard Jesus say this, no one dared to speak." All those hard teachings he gave prior to this, the disciples were asking questions. His questioners wanted to know more. This teaching, no one dares to speak. What are they afraid of?

Let me give some background on what's going on in this passage. Jesus is in the temple, it is after Palm Sunday. Jesus is actually quite close to death. He has entered Jerusalem and the first thing he does in the gospel of Mark, after he enters Jerusalem is he goes to the temple and he overturns the tables and he causes a big ruckus and upsets everyone. The religious leaders come to Jesus after he upsets everyone and they begin testing him, challenging him. They actually say to him, "By what authority have you said these things? By what a have you done these things?" They ask him about Caesar. "Is it right to pay taxes?" They ask them about the resurrection, the hardest questions they have, they ask about the resurrection. These are not new questions, contemporaneous religious thinkers, Jewish thinkers, Phyllo of Alexandria, Josephus, they ask and answer the same questions. These were the hardest questions and the religious leaders are bringing these questions to Jesus in this moment to challenge him and to test him. Mark says they were trying to trap him and test him.

This is the background context for this question, which on the contrary is not a trick. This is not a test. I think we're inclined to read it that way, because every question prior to it makes it a test but this scribe says he heard what Jesus was saying and he heard that Jesus answered well, he liked Jesus's answers, and so he comes to Jesus and says, "You've answered well. Which is the greatest commandment?" and he gives the answer he gives. He does something a little bit sly and tricky here in answering, which I will get to in a moment, but he gives the answer he gives. Love God and your neighbor as yourself. The scribe likes it. "You have answered well, rabbi."

Let me give a little bit more background. You know the narrative background now of what was going on in this moment of questioning, let's talk about love. The New Testament was written in Greek. Greek culture dominated the area, most people spoke Greek and Greek has all these different words for love. Often poets will say that English is burdened by only one word to try to cover all these different desires and emotions, affectations and affects whereas Greek had different words to describe different kinds of emotion, different kinds of relationship. I'm sure there are people studying Classics here, scholars of the Classical world who will correct me in the handshake line, but I'll just give some background on all the different nuanced ways that the Greek culture in which Jesus was living and speaking thought about love. There was family love, duty-bound love. It was thought of as love of obligations, “storge.” They had one word for that. There was also the love of friends, “philia.” Aristotle said this was the highest form of love. There was romantic and sexual love, “eros.”

But when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, and again, most of the Jewish people who were reading the Hebrew scriptures at the time were reading it in the translated Greek, there was different Greek word used for God's love. A Greek word that was used very rarely elsewhere in Greek literature. This word, probably many of you will recognize it in Greek was “agape.” Now, agape in Greek translates a Hebrew word which is “hesed” and a definition for hesed is just "God's love." This is the kind of love that is attributed to God in the Hebrew scriptures and often into English, it's translated as loving kindness or mercy or steadfast love, but in some ways it's sort of untranslatable. It just is what it is— hesed, agape.

One of the important things about this love, the love of God, has to do with this idea that God's love is different than other kinds of love, because it is given freely. God is the creator, unconditioned, undetermined by anything else, and God's love is unconditioned and undetermined by anything else.

This is kind of abstract theology speak, so let me put a finer point on it. God, doesn't love you because of the kind of person you are, because you're charming or smart, that would just be esteem or affection. God doesn't love you because of the things you do, because you made a lot of money or did well on a test, that would be reward or respect. God loves you for no other reason than that you are, your existence, the fact of your existence is the reason God loves you. In fact, because God's the creator, you exist because God loves you. God's love draws you into being, and God loves you for no other reason than that you exist.

I think of the first time I held each of my children when they were just born, these precious kids. I tell stories about Cami and Sammy and Danny, and in the moment I held them—all you first year parents who are here—in the moment I held them I didn't love them because they were witty or charming or had done wonderful things in the world. The fact of their existence opened my heart and all of myself poured into them just because, for no other reason. That's a different kind of love, that's hesed, that's agape.

Here's Jesus's trick. I told you his answer was a little bit tricky. The scribe tells him, "What is the greatest law, the heart of the law, the greatest commandment," and Jesus gives not one, but two. He sneaks a commandment in. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength," and he is using the Greek word in the New Testament “agape,” love that way. The way God loves you, you love God. Not because God has done things for you, not because God is a great God. Love God the way God loves you and also? Love your neighbor that way. And also also, love yourself that way.

The scribe agrees, because this is true to the ethics of the Hebrew scriptures all the way through, this is also what they say. The scribe knows that Jesus is right. He knows that Jesus has snuck in an additional commandment, but it is absolutely right and the scribe agrees.

But this teaching of Jesus's runs contrary to every expectation of Greek ethics at the time, the dominant way of thinking about the world at the time. Because Greek morals, Greek responsibility depended upon relation. The reason why there were all these different forms of love is because you had different moral obligations to different people. If you were a free citizen, a man, you treated other citizens one way, you treated slaves a different way, you treated non-citizens a different way, you treated women in your household a different way, and different forms of love would be appropriate to each of those relations and certain forms of love would be inappropriate to those relations because Greek ethics was about managing these relations and these statuses.

But Jesus changes it. Jesus says, "Anybody, everybody who gets anywhere close to you," that's what the word neighbor means. The one who is close to you, "Anybody who comes with a range of your attention, you owe them one kind of love. The same love that God gives you." Agape love. Open your heart and pour the whole thing out love.

This was absolutely contrary to the way the Greeks were thinking about things. I don't want to be too hard on the Greeks, because I think it's contrary to the way we think about things too. Love yourself that way. Think about that teaching. The nub of that teaching in this teaching of Jesus's, love yourself that much. Who among us loves ourselves that much? In all our frailty and brokenness and limitation, to look at ourselves and see ourselves the way God sees us.

Like many of you, I'm sure I've been sort of horrified by these Facebook files and the damage to self-love, especially among young girls, but the challenge they face on Instagram is also just the challenge of being a person. To love yourself that much is hard. It doesn't come naturally, not for me anyway. Or how about love your neighbor that much? Every person you cross in the street, in the grocery store, walking around campus, whoever gets close to you to love them that much, even if you don't like them that much. To love them that much? Simply because they are? Not because they're good to you or kind to you or smart or charming or respectable, but just because they exist, love them that much. This is the love Jesus calls us towards. He doesn't just call us toward it, he says, "This is the love on which everything else rests." 5,000 years of tradition, everything else rests on this love, which is God's love.

I think this in this teaching really reveals to us the deep and difficult scandal of the incarnation. We think about the incarnation of God becoming human in Jesus Christ, and that is scandalous and Paul all talks about it in the New Testament. How could God become human? This doesn't make any sense. It is scandalous and difficult to wrap one's head around, but it's only half the story because Jesus then turns to us, the incarnated one turns to us, and says, "You know this love which gives all things life, which runs the universe? It's yours. It belongs to you. It's been given to you and it's your job to give it to everybody else."

Five-thousand years, that thick, difficult book, 5,000 years of teaching, all of it boils down to you and your love for yourself and your love for your neighbor and through your love for yourself and your neighbor, your love for God. You hold it in your heart. That is also what incarnation means. Jesus said this and no one dare to speak. What were they afraid of?

Look around. Really look around at every person here, every person close to you, and I'm doing it too. According to Jesus, you owe everybody you have just seen love as deep and dear and devoted as the love God has for you. Look at yourself. That's harder in this context, but look inward, look at yourself. Maybe even the parts of yourself you don't like very much. You owe yourself love as deep and dear, as devoted as God's love for you. Every word of scripture, every word from every pulpit that has ever been preached in the history of Christendom hangs on that love.

Perhaps Jesus's hearers stop talking because there was nothing else to say.