34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The greatest commandment.
It is hard to get into the swing of Lent when we’ve had two services canceled due to weather. But that’s a lot like faith in general. Sometimes, we feel like we don’t have all the tools we need, like some pieces were missing in our faith toolbox. But, in the end, we have what we need. God gives us all we need.
In some ways, that’s also like Jesus’ great commandment. It’s just one law with two parts. I would imagine that many of the Hebrews, who had tons and tons of laws, commandments, and regulations in their faith toolbox, might have felt like this was greatly lacking. Just one, two part law and that’s it.
Here it is this one great faith tool: love God with your whole being, love your neighbor as yourself.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus is quoting two Old Testament laws
Deuteronomy 6:5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. This law enumerates your heart, soul and might as a way to describe every part of you. It is more than just a list of the parts of a person that are to be used to love God. A person is a whole being, so could you love God with only your heart or soul or strength or mind? Could you love God with just your foot or hand or eyes? Not likely. Love God with everything you are and everything you have.
Leviticus 19:18. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. This commandment, both here and in the gospels, is full of interesting meanings and we are going to look at this part of Jesus’ law of love in the coming weeks.
The reason Jesus can say that ‘all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments’ is because they really are all of the law. Think of the 10 commandments. The first three are all about how to love God. We have no other God but this God. We do not use God’s name for our purposes. We worship and enjoy God and the good gifts of God’s good creation in the rest time of Sabbath. This is how we love God. The remaining seven are about how to love others. We honor elders, family, and ancestors, we do not murder, we do not use other human beings for our selfish purposes, we do not steal or lie or practice envy because of the way in which it hurts our neighbor and our relationship to them.
It could be said that not only does all of the law hang upon these two things, but in a way, all of scripture is hangs upon them, too. What it looks like to love God, what it looks like to fail at loving God, what it looks like to be forgiven for failing at loving God, what it looks like to love God again; this is the story scripture tells us in many different voices over many years. The same is true for loving others.
It is no coincidence that this commandment begins with loving God. And that began with God first loving us. The whole of scripture tells us about that, too. St John writes to the early church: 1 John 4:7-13 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
Love itself, the love with which we love God and love others, is defined by how God first loves us.
A very wise pastor once told me that he had learned a great method for learning how to love God and love the neighbor. ‘When I am upset with my spouse, friends, co-workers, neighbors, I focus my attention on God. I stop concerning myself with how to love them, be patient with them, care about them, forgive them and, instead I focus on how much I love God and most of all how much I am loved by God. When I am upset with God, disappointed in the answer to prayers, confused and frustrated with not knowing what to do next, or even when I wonder where God is and have doubts, I turn my attention to loving my neighbor. I stop concerning myself with all the ways I have failed God, all the concerns and doubts, and focus on how much I love others, the great gift that they are to me and to my life. Most of all I focus on how I can show my love for them, for the hungry and hurting and lost.’
I remember telling him it sounded like he was just ignoring problems, just hoping they would go away rather than really dealing with issues. No, he told me, you’re not getting it. I figure out how to love others by loving and being loved by God. I figure out how to love God, how to experience God’s immense love for me by loving others.
The two are inseparable and they each teach us about the other. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’