Feb 13, 2019 2954 James Anderson

It All Boils Down to אהבה Ahavah

Life is hard and we often find ourselves in difficult situations. When overwhelmed or confused as to how to proceed on a specific issue, we sometimes need a road map. For Christians, the Bible and the teachings found in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” provide such maps; however, both can be daunting. Time constraints, not to mention the complexity and sheer size of both, hinder most of us from making use of these treasures. Most need Cliff Notes to navigate them, especially when time is of the essence and we must decide quickly. Our issues are often modern ones, such as those arising from technology. Consequently, we do not always get clear-cut answers. They must be inferred or ferreted out, a tricky task that often requires some training in these sources. Many times, answers to questions must wait for the Magisterium to address, taking extra time without a specific answer. The good news is that Jesus provides a touchstone or marker by which all decisions can be made and by which one can judge any action.

During Jesus’ ministry, He was questioned regarding which is the greatest commandment of the law (Mark 12:28-34, Matthew 22:34-46 and cf. Luke 10:25-37). Later, Rabbinic Judaism would articulate a total of 613 laws in the Torah or Pentateuch. Jesus’ response proves Him a master rabbi while simultaneously providing us with a benchmark by which to judge all actions and decisions—our roadmap distilling the Torah down to its essence. Jesus responds to the question by quoting perhaps the most well-known text to Jews in the first century, as well as today, and then adds to it a lesser-known text from the Torah. He combines them in such a way that His authority and His divinity are presupposed.

His response to the question begins by quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. In what scholars generally agree is our earliest Gospel, Mark 12:29 states that Jesus answers, “The first is ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’” Jesus then continues by quoting the remainder of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5 and cf. Mark 12:30). Jesus explains this is the greatest, most important commandment (Mark 12:28-29 and Matthew 22:40). The Shema, which means “Hear!” in Hebrew and is a reference to the first Hebrew word in the statement, commands Israel to hear. It was and is today the classic monotheistic declaration of faith for Jews.

Jesus then goes on to explain that there is a second commandment and He quotes Leviticus 19:18: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Matthew 22:39-40 reads, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Mark 12:31 adds Jesus explaining, “There is no other commandment greater than these.”

In distilling the entire law down to its essence, what comes to the fore and is relevant for our purpose is that Jesus points to one salient thing—love. Both texts from the Torah use the Hebrew root ahavah. It is no coincidence that Jesus points to this concept for, after all, The New Testament explicitly says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8b). Love fulfills the law or is the essence of the law and God is love. Many, such as the Franciscan friar and modern mystic Richard Rohr, in his recent book, “The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation,” suggest God’s very language is love and that the Trinity exists in love. Thus, in the end, love is what it is all about: love of God and humanity, precisely what Jesus explains is most important. Could there be a bigger authority than Jesus for Christians? This coheres with what Saint Paul, the Apostle to the gentiles, writes in Galatians 5:14: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (cf. Romans 13:9 and James 2:8). First Peter 4:8-10 also explains, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

Love or ahavah is at the core of the Christian life. Ahavah is God’s very nature (1 John 4:8b) and it is not a stretch to assume love is what binds us all together. Another modern-day mystic of the faith, the late Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths, in “The Golden String” eloquently said, “For love can give us a kind of knowledge that is beyond both faith and reason. The divine mystery is ultimately a mystery of love …”

Jesus teaching on ahavah also provides a framework by which to judge all actions and decisions—one of love. You should always ask, “Will my action or decision show love to God or neighbor?” You might wonder what it means to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. For starters, spending time with God and refraining from that which sets us apart from Him is one way to demonstrate love of God. How do you love your neighbor as yourself, you might also ask? First and foremost, by seeking the welfare and best for another, even at the expense of yourself.

Saint John Paul II reminds us that a true life consists of giving it away. Thomas Merton wrote, “Clean, unselfish love does not live on what it gets but on what it gives. It increases by pouring itself out for others, grows by self-sacrifice and becomes mighty by throwing itself away.” This is a paradox and counterintuitive. As with so many of Jesus’ and the Gospel’s teachings, it turns our conceptions on their head. Nevertheless, in giving oneself away, or dying to self, we find true freedom and life. This dying to self and ridding ourselves of the ego or “false self” is what it means to be in Christ. Galatians 2:20 reads, “And it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

You may wonder how to apply ahavah in practice. You might ask, “Should I forgive the person who did that horrible thing to me, who really hurt me or mine and caused me much suffering?” According to the principle of ahavah for God and other, an unequivocal “yes” is the answer, for loving our neighbor would entail forgiving him. There would be no ahavah in withholding forgiveness; rather, it would harm you and potentially your neighbor. This is in alignment with the teaching of Jesus elsewhere in His ministry. Specifically, it is imperative for our eternal wellbeing that we forgive one another (Matthew 6:15 and 18:35). You will find the principle of Jesus’ teaching on ahavah coheres with all of Scripture and brings wellbeing to others and us. Its divine origin summarizes and is the pinnacle of the law in a quick and easy teaching. It is easily called to mind, thus serving as a helpful touchstone.

As another example, suppose a parent is trying to figure out how much time he or she should allow a child to use an iPad per day. For obvious reasons, Scripture and the Catechism are silent on this modern dilemma. Yet, for a child’s growth and wellbeing it is important to figure out. Jesus’ summation of the law and His pointing to the ahavah of God and neighbor actually provides the key. In this case, you might ask and reflect on how you love your neighbor—your very own child. How do you demonstrate ahavah for your child in this case, rather than what is most convenient for you? Loving the child might be allowing only a few minutes a day on the iPad. This way, the child will learn to cultivate other habits such as reading, socializing or playing outside in nature.

Every case will be different and prayer is always recommended, but Jesus’ summary of the law provides the key to judge all decisions and actions. It is a framework that helps us seek the love of God and neighbor and not self. As issues arise in daily living, we can quickly rely on this principle by asking ourselves what will allow for the greatest show of love for God or neighbor. In these examples and in other cases, when we are able to demonstrate love of neighbor, it nearly always follows that the love of God is present and vice versa.

Saint Paul writes, in Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Jesus pointed to this principle as being at the core of what it is means to follow God. Ahavah is at the core of our very life, for it is the core of God. It follows, then, that it should be our road map in all matters. It is fitting to close with a text we should memorize on ahavah and we should start making use of it. When the question was posed to Jesus as to which is the greatest commandment in the law, He answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29- 31).

It truly all boils down to ahavah.


James Anderson

James Anderson is currently a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern in Texas and serves as Adjunct Faculty at various universities in the San Antonio area. He received a PhD in Biblical Studies/Hebrew Bible from the University of Sheffield in England and a Masters of Divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He has a Masters in Mental Health Counseling from Texas A&M-San Antonio and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. He has studied in Israel and Germany, given papers in Ireland, Portugal and England and traveled widely in the Middle East, Europe and India. James has worked with those desiring to implement spirituality into the therapeutic process, with great benefit for those struggling with grief, trauma and depression. He currently works with all ages on a variety of issues. He takes seriously the belief that God is the ultimate source of healing and well-being as he seeks to work collaboratively with clients to foster autonomy, empowerment, well-being and healing. Regardless of the issues, James works from the perspective that our thoughts play a much larger role in our lives than most realize. He maintains that change is always possible; it is never too late. His research interests include the implementation of spirituality into the therapeutic process, the religions of Iron-Age Israel and Judah, monotheism and religious developments in Persian-period Yehud. His other publications include articles on ancient Israelite religion and the recent monograph entitled Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal (New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).

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