Jesus says that the heart of true faith and religion is to love God with the totality of one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Mark 12:28-34). Jesus clearly models and embodies what this kind of love looks like. This is why he is drawn to the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged. This is why he constantly breaks down barriers and boundaries that exclude people from God’s acceptance and grace. This is why he brings to bear on his own religious tradition a rigorous prophetic critique, even though it leads to his death.
Mark’s version of Jesus’ response to the question of which commandment is the most important emphasizes that love of God and love of neighbor is “more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:33). Burnt offerings and sacrifices were a vital part of temple worship. But according to Jesus, there is something far more important.
Burnt offerings and sacrifices were a vital part of temple religion. But there was something much more important. Jesus’ answer cuts to the heart of true faith: It’s all about loving relationships—with God and with ones’ sister and brother in the human family.
The story is told of Richard Bellinger, a young boy in South Caroline who was the son of a minister. One Saturday night Richard decided to shine his father’s shoes so his father would not have to do it the next morning. The following night his father put a silver dollar on the bureau of his son’s room with a note commending him for what he had done.
The next morning, when the father put on his shoes, he felt something hard and metallic in one of them. When he took off his shoe and reached inside, he found the silver dollar he had given his son the night before. Along with the dollar was a note that simply read, “I did it for love.”
This is where authentic religion leads us—to do what we do not to receive rewards or to avoid punishment, but for love, for love of God and for love of neighbor.
A woman once asked a Spiritual Master, “Which is the true religion?” The Spiritual Master replied, “Once there was a magic ring that gave its bearer the gifts of grace, kindness, and generosity. When the owner of the ring was on his deathbed, each of his three sons came separately and asked him for the ring. The old man promised the ring to each of them.
“He then sent for the finest jeweler in the land and paid him to make two rings identical to the original. The jeweler did so, and before he died, the father gave each son a ring without telling him about the other two.
“Inevitably, the three sons discovered that each had a ring, and they appeared before the local judge to ask his help in deciding who had the magic ring. The judge examined the rings and found them to be all alike. He then said to the three brothers, “Why must anyone decide now? We shall know who has the magic ring when we observe the direction your life takes.”
“Each of the brothers then acted as if he had the magic ring by being kind, honest, and generous.
The Spiritual Master concluded: “Religions are like the three brothers in the story. The moment their members cease striving for justice and love we will know that their religion is not the one God gave the world.”
Authentic religion is not about possessing a magical ring, but about expressing divine love. It’s not about getting the answers right, it’s about living in right relationship with one another.
I’m not one who believes that all religions are the same or that all religions lead to God. Certainly, there is a time and place to have constructive dialogue about the truth claims of our various religious traditions and the worldviews that emerges from them. Not all religious ideas are of equal value or benefit. Some religious ideas can be very harmful and destructive to the common good. But what is most important to God is not what we believe, but how we live, or more pointedly, how we love. The most important thing we, as disciples of Jesus, learn from Jesus is how to love. Everything else is secondary.
Love is more important than our creeds and confessions. It is more important than a statement of our beliefs or the manner of our worship. It is more important than our prayers, praise, and preaching. It is more important than our litanies and liturgies. As Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, without love it all amounts to nothing. Without love all our Christian worship and social engagement are just noise. It takes love to make music.
Basic to our experience and expression of God’s love is our acceptance of one another with all our differences. This grows out of a basic core conviction that we are all sacred, all unique, all important, all children of God.
This is the basic thesis of Jean Vanier’s wonderful book titled, Becoming Human. He says, “Until we realize that we belong to a common humanity, that we need each other, that we can help each other, we will continue to hide behind feelings of elitism and superiority and behind the walls of prejudice, judgment, and disdain that those feelings engender.”
Unfortunately, there is a large segment of Christianity today that propagates a salvation message out of a spirit of elitism, exceptionalism, and superiority. This is why Christianity needs a new reformation, a reformation rooted in the core conviction that we are all God’s daughters and sons, that we all have value and worth, that we are all special and that we are all chosen.