By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jewish people’s relationship to the Law had grown complicated. Since they returned to their land from exile, they made such a concerted effort to avoid the lawlessness that had led to exile that they not only pledged to keep the Mosaic law, but they also erected additional traditions as a fence around the Law. As dedicated an effort it was intended to be, it ultimately resulted in a congestion that not only wound tightly around the neck of the people’s life of worship but also undermined it with hypocrisy. There was no clear line of sight into the heart of God.
So when he was eventually and, appropriately, asked by a lawyer which commandment of the law was the greatest, Jesus’ reply provided welcomed clarity. He answered “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt22:37-40).
So impactful was Jesus’ statement here that Paul echoed it in his own writings (Rom13:8-10, Gal5:14,). Jesus and Paul were both comfortable summarizing the Law as love because they knew their audience possessed an abundance of detailed knowledge of the Law; so much, in fact, that a summary was necessary. To this day, Jesus’ love summarization is one we have rightly come to rely on in our attempt to understand God’s demand on our lives.
A summary is only useful, however, as long as knowledge of what is being summarized is retained and appreciated. When the summarization becomes so constantly used that the specific details being summarized are no longer remembered or esteemed, it has become a generalization. Such is the situation I believe may be facing the Church today.
Many churches and ministers are so grateful for whatever attention span their congregations give that instead of spending it fixating on complex topics requiring explanation and nuance, they opt for simplicity, hence the appeal of the love summarization. Similarly, as Scripture’s complexities raise issues of holiness, communal obligations, or dealing with political ideologies and allegiances, the love summarization quickly provides much less tension and divide. Therefore, the desire of simplicity and the summarization of love are understandable avenues for maximizing one’s message in a short amount of time. Having said that, however, an over-reliance on the love summarization can inevitably lead to liabilities.
One, as Bible reading and literacy decreases, so does knowledge and understanding of its vast but critical narratives and theologies. Like a high-schooler’s preference for Wikipedia entries instead of reading the original material, the summarization of love becomes preferred to the appreciation of God’s Scriptural revelation.
Second, the love summarization, in and of its abstract self, carries no explicit moral impetus. During my freshmen year at a Christian college, I went to a store with another ministry student. He stole an item in front of me. When I objected, his response was that I needed to be more loving because God is love. When the concept of love becomes an enabler of lawlessness, what harmony or good does it or can it claim to represent or promote?
Finally, “Love” in its popular usage doesn’t necessarily require an acknowledging of the person and priorities of King Jesus. Consider the COEXIST bumper sticker; while every group featured there would uphold or celebrate “Love”, they are philosophically indifferent or opposed to King Jesus and what he demands. So, while in the Church “Jesus=Love” (maybe), outside of the Church, “Love” doesn’t carry the same gospel distinction, and is, therefore, insufficient as a tool in conveying the comprehensive reality of Jesus.
The summarization Jesus and Paul employed to demonstrate how love is the sum of the Law was a helpful and necessary one at the time. It provided much needed clarity into the heart of God. But if the Church’s use of that summarization begins to nurture an ignorance of Scriptural reality, or an indifference to its demands on our lives or to King Jesus himself, that summarization then requires a thorough unpacking. Churches and Christians would thus benefit greatly from education of a more developed quality. A kind that moves away from the inspirational pop theology characterizing many pulpits today, and instead digs into the texts, examines and discusses the hard topics, expanding upon the simplicities and the love summarizations to allow for an appreciation of the inherent details, complexities, and nuance to take root and flourish. Jesus and Paul’s love summary was a gift; it only remains a gift when there is an appreciation and allegiance to what it was summarizing.