Love and the moral code

Greater love hath no man...
Greater love hath no man…

Two evenings ago, the Second Lesson for Evening Prayer in the Canadian BCP included this famous passage:

Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘Which is the first commandment of all?’

Jesus answered him, ‘The first of all the commandments is: “Hear, O Isreal, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

So the scribe said to Him, ‘Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’

Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ But after that no one dared question Him. (Mark 12:28-34, NKJV)

This morning included 1 John 4:7-8:

Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.

I have discoursed on 1 John 4 here before.

I think we have an easy tendency to start to focus on all of the rest of the law. Or to immediately follow ‘love thy neighbour’ with, ‘Of course, the rest of the moral code is important as well’, or ‘Not that this means condoning sin, mind you…’ And, well, yes. Of course, the rest of the moral code is important. No, loving others doesn’t mean condoning sin.

But if that is the first thing we do after affirming our belief that loving other human beings is the second-highest calling of the Christian, are we loving others by doing so?

Loving others is a risky business. Opening your arms in embrace of someone else means that person might stab you in the back. Standing alongside those with whom we disagree might be misconstrued by everyone. Entering into someone’s life and pain might consume us.

Then again,

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)

Nevertheless, it is worth asking how the law of love and the moral code of Scripture live together. Love is the highest and greatest command — and, as St Augustine is paraphrased, ‘Love God and do as you please.’ There is a chance that simply loving God and neighbour will take care of this question. Nonetheless, Scripture can serve as a guide for when we are uncertain.

I am one of those rare beasts — the Anglican who subscribes to the 39 Articles, the seventh of which says:

Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet not withstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

The 39 Articles elsewhere affirm that our salvation comes entirely from the grace of God, not our ability to live according to the moral code of Scripture. Such good works as we do perform come as a result of that grace and the justification that is by faith.

The moral code is succinct in the New Testament:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, KJV)

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21, KJV)

This leads straight into:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-24, KJV)

These are commandments to believing Christians, who are also commanded to live in love with everyone around them. They must be taken not only with ‘love thy neighbour’ but also with:

Judge not, lest ye be judged. (Matthew 7:1)

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. 10 Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. 12 For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? 13 But those who are outside God judges. (1 Corinthians 5:9-13, NKJV)

It does seem that unrepentant, sinning Christians are to fall under censure from church authorities. That is not most people. Most people are either not Christians or repentant. None of us is truly free from sin, so it is no use using these verses to judge others even within the church — when churches do make use of such discipline on very rare occasion, it is after much prayer and consideration, and after different parties involved have been hurt or are causing hurt.

The rest of the time? LOVE. God will judge, and He will do what is most just, most holy, and most loving.

And now, some ancient Christian wisdom (taken from the Facebook page of that name):

Whoever sees in himself the traces of hatred toward any man on account of any kind of sin is completely foreign to the love of God. For love toward God does not at all tolerate hatred for man.

+ St. Maximos the Confessor

To judge sins is the business of one who is sinless, but who is sinless except God? Who ever thinks about the multitude of his own sins in his heart never wants to make the sins of others a topic of conversation. To judge a man who has gone astray is a sign of pride, and God resists the proud. On the other hand, one who every hour prepares himself to give answer for his own sins will not quickly lift up his head to examine the mistakes of others.

+ St. Gennadius of Constantinople

And the Desert Fathers (similarly from Facebook):

A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, “I, too, am a sinner.”

From the Sayings of the Desert Fathers

From Abba Agathon (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; Cistercian Publications pg. 23):

“Whenever his thoughts urged him to pass Judgment on something which he saw, Abba Agathon would say to himself, ‘Agathon, it is not your business to do that.'”

I doubt that all of my thoughts are clear. All I know is that as I strive to live a righteous life, three important aspects of that are not judging others, being aware of my own sins, and figuring out how to love.

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