What is the key to understanding the Bible? Jesus Himself answers this question: ” ‘Master, which is the great commandment in the law?’ Jesus said unto him, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ ” (Matt. 22:36-40) In this passage, the Lord is illuminating our path out of slavery in the “Egypt” of the Old Covenant into the freedom of the “Promised Land” that He created us for, the new covenant of love. This freedom means that, instead of living in a way to fulfill the letter of the law and so earn our salvation, we must learn to understand the meaning behind the law: every commandment, within its context of time and place, was given to enforce loving behavior. Seeking to understand this context is the only way to discern the best way to apply the law to our own lives. We must learn to understand the commandments rather than applying them blindly and often without love, all while judging those who fail to follow them.
Most importantly, we must open our hearts to be able to love. St. Augustine put it this way, “Love and do what you will.” When we love truly, we unite ourselves to our God who is Love, and all our desires become good because they are motivated by love. Opening our hearts to love is difficult and painful because it forces us to face both our fears and our secret sorrows. But only by exposing our wounds to God’s tender and all-embracing love can our hearts be healed and grow capable of loving and being loved more deeply. This process is what salvation looks like.
The transformation from seeking to fulfill the rules and striving to be upright law-abiding people to seeking only to imitate Christ in unbounded love is a key part of maturing in the spiritual life. Scripture points to this process throughout the Bible. The Law is slavery; it is a “bit and bridle.” “Be ye not as the horse, or as the mule, which have no understanding: whose mouth must be held in with bit and bridle, lest they come near unto thee.” (Ps. 32:9) When we open ourselves up to love and to understand the context of love behind the commandments, we no longer need a bit and bridle, but are free.
Any aspect of the spiritual life– spiritual gifts, theological insight, faith, ascetic discipline, even self-sacrifice– can become an idol and a distraction from God if it is misapplied and not grounded in the context of love. As we grow in the spiritual life, we are called to recognize this and seek love first and foremost. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” (1 Cor 13: 1-3, 9-11)
In another place, Christ tells the woman at the well, “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” (John 4:23). Worshipping in spirit and in truth means that we go beyond the externals of the commandments to their very heart, which Christ Himself tells us is to love. If our application of any commandment is not a demonstration of love, then we are not worshipping in truth and have misunderstood the commandment.
Sometimes it takes some detective work and a history lesson to uncover the love behind a commandment. For example, what about “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex 21:24)? How can this commandment endorsing revenge possibly be about love? In the context of life in the ancient near East, “an eye for an eye” is in agreement with Hammurabi’s Code, and like Hammurabi’s Code, it is intended to protect the weak from the abuse of the strong. “An eye for an eye,” in its historical context, is a restraint on revenge that would normally seek death for an eye. In the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus Christ tells his apostles in no uncertain terms that they must now go beyond the outward meaning of that law to understand the love it was meant to teach in its limited way. Now they must apply the commandment of love more perfectly: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also… I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you… Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matt 5:38-39, 44, 48)
We too, in our time, are called to a more perfect fulfillment of Christ’s commandments. We must move beyond our the focus on keeping up our “Christian image” and seek to follow Christ’s new commandment of perfect love. The scriptures call us to this path again and again. “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4: 7-8) When we spend our time bickering over the proper selection of worship music or the proper way to observe the fast– in short, by looking around us to see whether other people are behaving in the way we think is correct– we are misapplying all God’s commandments and distracting ourselves from what really matters. We are like the proverbial bishop who fasted strictly from all meat during Lent but “ate” a priest and a deacon for breakfast each morning.
The only thing that matters for a Christian is that we love God and our neighbor. Going to church every week, or even every day, and living the most perfect moral life will not make us a Christian if we do not cultivate the unbounded love that is the heart of all God’s commandments. “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13: 35)
The way of love is not an easy path, however. It transforms not only our understanding of the Bible but of all of life. It may mean that our ego, the self-centered part of ourselves that seeks outward praise and admiration, gets crushed into the dust to allow our more vulnerable and authentic selves to experience love. It is much easier to live and focus on external things. Our hearts are crippled by pain, suffering, and sin. Who of us has ever experienced perfect unconditional love in this fallen world? It is difficult to open ourselves up to love and be loved because it requires us to trust that God loves us in a way that surpasses anything we have ever experienced. But our Lord has promised to heal our wounded hearts, to offer us the capacity for love and joy beyond what we have ever known. “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezek. 36:26) This promise is our hope for being transformed and healed by the grace of God’s boundless love, that we too will be able to love fully and to have the perfect freedom that comes with loving God.
St. Isaac the Syrian (7th century) describes this same spiritual transformation in the following lyrical prayer: “At the door of your compassion do I knock, Lord. You can see my sores hidden within me. O my Jesus, key to all gifts, open up for me the great door to your treasure-house, that I may enter and praise you with the praise that comes from the heart in return for your mercies which I have experienced; for you came and renewed me with an awareness of the new world.”