We begin with Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Old Testament. Moses, speaking to his people, tells them that if they obey God’s laws they will have a long life. These laws will ensure that they prosper and will live in “a land where milk and honey flow.” God commands that they “love God with all your heart, with all your soul with all your strength.” In Mark’s Gospel a scribe approached Jesus and asked which “is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus responded that we are called to love God with “all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” He continued with this statement: “There is no commandment greater than this: You must love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
Sometimes we read Scripture with the same understanding of these ancient authors. Sometimes we need to read and recognize that our world has changed in the last few thousand years. Today we need to see these readings in modern eyes.
I think we’ve all heard from our earliest days that we are called to love God and our neighbors just as we love ourselves. At the time Mark wrote, and for much of our history, the concept of loving ourselves was a given.
I’ve spoken about this before, but in ancient times self preservation was not a given. Staying alive, getting enough food, avoiding sickness or violence, was a full time job. Simply put, they didn’t have the opportunity to worry about self esteem. When Jesus commanded that his followers love their neighbor as themselves it was a warning against greed. Loving God and your neighbor was not an intellectual exercise and it wasn’t a promise of good feelings. The call to love God and your neighbor influenced even the simplest decisions.
It was the reason that our Old Testament ancestors made sacrifices. When they achieved some success, whether through a successful crop bringing the herd to market they recognized that loving themselves through this success also called them to love God by giving part of their surplus back to God.
And it was the reason why Jesus commanded his followers to give to others. Achieving success required them to “share the wealth” with those who were less fortunate and we saw this last week with Bartimeus.
Today much of our world lives with the same reality, but many of us live in an entirely different world. I don’t wish to wander too far into the weeds of this but many of us (and, I suspect, nearly everyone who reads this) don’t live in a world where we have to scramble to stay alive. Loving God, and even loving our neighbor, doesn’t take much of anything away from our survival.
But loving ourselves is something else entirely. We live in a world where we intimately know phrases like “self esteem,” “depression,” or “despair.” The idea of loving ourselves challenges us in ways that we have not seen before, and it calls us to see these readings in a new light.
Many years ago a friend of mine went to hear St. Teresa of Calcutta (otherwise known as Mother Teresa). She spoke of the difficulties of ministering in the United States. She said that in Calcutta caring for the poor was easy: they were hungry and she could give them food. They were naked and she could give them clothes. But in the United States “you have enough food and enough clothing. But your poverty is loneliness and that’s not as easy to cure.”
The authors of today’s readings assumed that we love ourselves and challenged us to love God and our neighbors. But today many of us find it easy to love God and our neighbor at the expense of loving ourselves.
I work with someone whose teenage grandchild committed suicide. I don’t need to explain the searing pain this caused her family but I was struck by her suicide note. She told her parents that while she knew that they loved her, she didn’t love herself. The pain of not loving herself became so unbearable that she chose to end her life.
And so perhaps when we read today’s readings we should look with new eyes, and we should reverse our understanding. Maybe we should look at how much we love our God and love our neighbor and let these experiences tell us how much we should love ourselves.
God’s love for us has no limits, and for most of us our love for God also brings out our best. Our love for our neighbor challenges us, but most of us do well with this. And so if God’s love for us has no limits, and our neighbor’s love for us builds us up, can we use this love to better love ourselves?
I think so. Nowhere in Scripture does love of self depend on how strong, or pretty, or successful we are. Love of self, in a Christian context, does not mean that we are “good enough” to be loved by God and our neighbor. Love of self in the 21st Century calls us to love God and love our neighbor enough to recognize how beloved we are. When I worked as a Youth Minister at a church I was asked to write a letter of recommendation for a high school student. As she told me all the reasons I shouldn’t write the letter, as she told me all the things wrong with her, I told her this (in my frustration): “You know, the people who love you aren’t stupid.” I told her that while she may not have recognized why she was lovable, the rest of us did. She is now incredibly good at what she does and her clients benefit from my challenge.
I sometimes think our problem is that we know ourselves too well. We see God as perfect and, for most of us, we see our neighbors at their best. But we know all too well those times when we’ve had selfish thoughts, mean motives, and fearful reactions. Even when they haven’t translated into actions, we still criticize ourselves and see ourselves in a poor light. These don’t make us less lovable, and if anything our decision not to turn these into actions works in our favor.
We are called to love God, love our neighbor, and love ourselves. Followers of Moses were challenged to love God, and they did. Followers of Jesus were called to love their neighbors, and they did. Today we are called to love ourselves, and I pray we can.