The Australian artist, Michael Leunig, has a cartoon in which two people are joined together and above them is a line saying that love is both the simplest and most difficult thing in the world.

As always, Leunig is right on the money. Love is simple in theory, but, as life in our world reveals to us, often very difficult to put into practice.

Jesus Christ statue Portugal

For Jesus, the aim of life was all about love of God expressed in love of neighbour, including our enemies, says Nils von Kalm. PICTURE: Tim Hufner/Unsplash

It is a human tendency to complicate that which is simple. We often get in our own way. That is indeed the story of the people of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Deuteronomy chapter six shows us what the Jewish people call the Shema. It is the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. It is a prayer that Jewish people recite every day. They know the significance of the command.

"Deuteronomy chapter six shows us what the Jewish people call the Shema. It is the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. It is a prayer that Jewish people recite every day. They know the significance of the command."

Yet the Jewish Torah (the first five books of our Old Testament) is full of many other commands, many of which seem nothing short of bizarre to our 21st century minds. By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees had in fact turned the Jewish Law into no less than 613 commands, and they saw the way to please God as trying as perfectly as possible to obey them. They were legalistic in the extreme.

The Pharisees were so caught up in obeying the law that they lost sight of its purpose: to love. Obeying the letter of the law for them became the ultimate aim. They believed that was the way to please God. In their minds they were right with God and therefore others weren’t. Does that sound familiar when we think about much of today’s church?

So, when Jesus came along and brazenly told the ‘upright’ (and uptight) Pharisees that they had it all wrong, they were understandably more than upset. The Pharisees were highly respected in Palestinian society; American author Brian McLaren even says they were considered the social progressives of the time. That can be hard to fathom when we see how little time Jesus had for them.

Jesus walked all over the social conventions of the Pharisees. While they strictly observed the Sabbath, He dared to heal people on the Sabbath; when they reminded Him that the Law required an adulteress to be stoned, He didn’t condemn her. In a society in which children were deemed to be insignificant, He told us that if we don’t become like them, we can’t enter the kingdom of God. And while the Pharisees avoided ‘sinners’ like tax collectors and prostitutes, Jesus embraced and welcomed them as equals to anyone else.

For Jesus, the aim of life was all about love of God expressed in love of neighbour, including our enemies. Through His teaching and His life of love, He exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees’ obsession with legalism. And this is where much of the church of today still needs as much evangelising as the rest of the world.

The Pharisees were like many Bible-believing Christians today. They knew their Scriptures backwards, they were convinced that believing the right things about God made them right in God’s eyes, they tithed their money just as the law required, and would cross the ocean to convert someone. Again, does that sound familiar to much of today’s church? Yet what did Jesus call them? Sons of hell. Quite harsh, many of us might think. He criticised them for neglecting the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness, and that what really mattered was mercy and not sacrifice.

In the end, Jesus emphasised love. He went so far as to say the Shema was the greatest commandment (which the Pharisees didn’t disagree with him on), and added that love of neighbour was a command just like it. He then added that the whole Law and the Prophets were summed up in those two simple yet difficult commands.

This is where much of today’s church gets it wrong. Surveys done in the US show that the words that non-churchgoing people associate with Christians are words like ‘judgmental’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘hateful’. As the author, Philip Yancey, says, why is it that the people who most flocked to Jesus are the very ones who are so turned off by much of the modern church?

I think it’s because we have let ourselves become too much like the Pharisees. We are too focused on the letter of the law rather than the law of love (as the letter of James reminds us). We are too focused on intellectual assent to a list of beliefs than we are to living out the love of Christ to everyone, regardless of race, sex or religion. As an example, if Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan today, He might talk about the good Palestinian Muslim and tell us to be like him. Many would have conniptions about such an analogy.

Another reason we have lost our way is because we talk too much about being Biblical instead of being Christlike. The problem is that Jesus didn’t do this. He saw the final authority as himself, not the Scriptures. The Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is the lens through which we should read all of Scripture, including the Old Testament. 

"Jesus comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. This is nothing less than our calling as well."

The irony of the evangelical claim of the Bible being the final authority is that it is in that great evangelical manifesto - what we call the Great Commission - that we see that it is not the Bible that is the final authority but that Jesus is. The Great Commission itself starts with Jesus saying “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me”. 

When we read the Bible therefore, it is to be read through the lens of who Jesus is. For example, when we read in I Samuel 15 of God’s command to destroy the Amalekites, including the women and children, and compare that to Jesus’ command to love our enemies, we go with Jesus. It is seeing the Bible as a progressive revelation of who God is, with the ultimate revelation being Jesus.

The aim of life for the Christian is to live out the love of Christ to everyone. No-one is to be excluded, not the Muslim, the atheist, the Trump supporter, the addict, the murderer or the child abuser. If we do this, it will likely cause a scandal among many upright, respectable people in society, including and especially many Christians.

Jesus comforted the disturbed and disturbed the comfortable. This is nothing less than our calling as well.