The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) tells a story about a gentile who came to Rabbi Shammai, requesting that he teach him the entire Torah while standing on one foot. The "standing on one foot" idea was this individual's way of saying, “I am not asking for a seven-week intensive on the Torah but a compendium.” As the story goes, Rabbi Shammai, a builder by trade, pushed him away with a builder's cubit.
Notwithstanding the rejection, the unnamed gentile looked for Rabbi Hillel and presented the same petition to him. Hillel accepted the request and gave the gentile this encapsulation of the Torah. "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it."
I have often wondered if there is any truth to the words of Rabbi Hillel. Are the writings of the Law and the prophets truly that simple? As a Christian, is that a good philosophy for Christian living?
Jesus on Hillel's philosophy
There is no more uniquely qualified to look at than Jesus the Messiah when it comes to Christian living issues. On the week leading up to the crucifixion, Matthew tells us that the religious establishment of the time was tirelessly trying to besiege Him with theological questions. One among their ranks, a scholar of religious law, publicly interrogated Him saying, "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36).
Jesus' response echoed the sentiments of Rabbi Hillel: "You should love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind," Jesus said, "and you should love your neighbor as yourself." Instead of declaring the rest as "commentary," Jesus added more spiritual depth to that philosophical idea by stating that "the Law and the prophets hang on these two commandments." According to Jesus, the entire body of religion is a commentary on these two ideas: loving God and loving people.
In Christ's times, the religious establishment struggled with loving people. More often than not, the Pharisees and Sadducees were identified by their differing interpretive commitments to the Torah and not their love for people. And Jesus would often rebuke them for neglecting "the more important matters of the law such as justice and mercy" (Matthew 23:23).
Post life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, Christendom's theological pillars interestingly focused heavily on loving God, paying less attention, if any at all, to loving people. As we look back in the portals of time, we are inundated with examples, shameful examples, of times when in our quest for religious piety, we have been extremely unloving to our fellow human beings.
The world we live in today hasn't changed much from the days of old. We still have an unbalanced approach to religion; our religious practice focuses intensely on loving God and less, if any at all, on loving people. As a body of believers, we seem to have forgotten the admonition that "whoever claims to love God and yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).
John's argument here is very simple and yet incredibly profound. John is arguing that the same love by which we love God is given to us by God; it is a direct result of God loving us first (1 John 4:7-10). Therefore, the love of God also enables us to love people because, in its very nature, the love of God extends to people. Thus, if you say you love God and hate people, you are a liar. That cannot be the love of and from God you speak of.
I have often wondered how much impact it will have on the church if our love for people was made explicit in our religious identity and not left to be drawn out through creative theological parsing. Imagine if one of our baptismal vows was, “I promise to display a sincere love for God and a Christ-like love for people in everything I do.” Imagine what impact it would have if one of our fundamental statements declared that “As Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we love God and we also love people.”
I imagine if this were done, it would begin a change in how we practice and teach Adventism. From health to prophecy, everything we do and teach would be a commentary on our love for God and people.
More often than not, our eschatological framework tends to leave out the importance of loving people. Some of the themes that often get prime time in our discourses are judgment, the mark of the beast, and righteousness. While on the other hand, Jesus often placed the love for people as a central theme in His eschatological discourse.
In Matthew 25:31-44, Jesus taught that the king and judge of the universe would separate the nations into two groups, represented by the sheep and the goats. The main difference between the sheep and the goats, Jesus taught, would be their love for people. The sheep would be those who genuinely expressed a Christ-like love for people, while the goats' primary focus, like that of the contextual Pharisees, would be religion without an emphasis on loving people.
Jesus the Messiah laid down His life for people. It was a loyal love for people that drove and continues to drive the great plan of salvation. "This is how much God loved people," John wrote, "He gave his Son, His one and only unique Son so that people would not perish, but by believing in Him, they can have eternal life” (John 3:16). Therefore, if we are His ambassadors, we too ought to love people and see their value through Jesus' eyes.
As followers of Jesus the Messiah, the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi echoes how we ought to relate to people. "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace," Francis prayed, "where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon... where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love."
I pray the next time our political leaders celebrate the death of a human being that they have conveniently labeled as the enemy, we will not find reason to join in on the celebrations because we love people. I pray the next time we hear of another death due to drug overdose, we will not join in blaming the victim because as Seventh-day Adventist Christians, we love God and we love People.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, orator, and author currently serving in the Osoyoos Church in the B.C. Conference. Pastor Thandazani and His wife Matilda have been blessed with three beautiful girls who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. (www.themscproject.com)
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