The Greatest Commandment is Love
Rev. Canon David B. Tabo-oy
v34When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they came together, v35and one of them, a teacher of the Law, tried to trap him with a question. v36″Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
v37Jesus answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ v38This is the greatest and the most important commandment. v39The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ v40The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:34-40
The plot against Jesus intensifies as He nears the highpoint of his earthly ministry. Chapters 21 and 22 of the Gospel of Matthew contain one controversy after another. After Jesus cleansed the Temple, the chief priests castigated Him by asking, “By what authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority? Jesus did not answer them directly, instead told them three parables that exposed the failures of the religious leaders. The Pharisees in collusion with some Herodians then tried to entrap Jesus by asking if it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor (last week’s topic). After this, they heard that Jesus silenced the Saducees, decide to have another crack at Him. This time they sent a lawyer to test him.
The question was again designed to do damage to the reputation of Jesus. And once again Jesus proves he is equal to the task. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest”? Now, even though this question was used to test Jesus, it is nonetheless an important question. Perhaps in the life of Israel at that time it was THE most important question. For us moderns as we wrestle with so many issues and priorities in life the same question is essential as well.
“Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” is not an unusual question. Rabbis routinely ask such questions of each other and their disciples in an honest attempt to plumb the depths of the law. The problem is not the question but the spirit in which it is asked. The Old Testament has 613 commandments, and there is no clear standard for judging which is greatest. Regardless of Jesus’ answer, the lawyer can respond with further questions designed to put Jesus on the defensive or to cause him to make a mistake. In one sense, because God gave the commandments, all are of equal importance. However, rabbis speak of some commandments as “heavy” and others as “light,” and there is an ongoing debate regarding the relative importance of various commandments and how to summarize them for ordinary people.
Jesus not only knew the correct answer, however, he challenged the Pharisees themselves by quickly citing a second commandment. v37Jesus answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ v38This is the greatest and the most important commandment. v39The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ v40The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Jesus expanded the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:5 by adding the second part.
These two commandments belong together. We cannot obey one unless we also keep the other. If we disobey one, we break them both. If we do not love God, our supposed love of our neighbor is only a form of self-love. If we do not love our neighbor, the love we claim to have for God is only empty emotion. Loving God inspires love of our neighbor; love of our neighbor enfleshes love of God.
This teaching is not just a clever word game. This is all about what being the Body of Christ is all about. We carry Jesus’ words into the world each day as we go about our various ministries. In our primary arena of our work or ministry, our family, we are patient and respectful of one another because that is how we share the love we received. In our occupation, as employees, or employers, retirees or jobseekers – we act with integrity and consistency, demonstrating how God loves us. In our civic community, we show concern for the homeless and hungry, recalling God’s insistence that people of Israel care for the widow and orphan and the stranger. And in our church community, we strive to build up one another and strengthen those whose relationship with God is weak, so that all might experience God’s love to the fullest.
We also do these things because God first loved us. The good news is that we love not by our own reason or strength but through the power of God’s love. First, God created us out of love. When we turned away from our Creator, God loved us so much that gave Jesus to die and rise again from the dead, conquering the powers of sin and death that we might enjoy eternal life. Now God’s Spirit calls and nurtures us through the word, water, bread and wine, and through other believers in Christ. Through this Spirit, we continue to experience God’s love, and we respond to that love by loving our neighbor. The circle is closed.
What God asks of those who believe in Christ and receive his salvation is devoted love. This love requires an attitude of heart where God is valued and esteemed that we truly long for his fellowship, strive to obey him, and sincerely care for his honor and will on earth. Those who truly love God will desire to share his suffering, promote his kingdom, and live for his honor and righteous standards on earth. Our love for God must be wholehearted and dominating love, a love inspired by his love for us whereby he gave his Son for our sake (John 3:16). Our love is to be the kind of love described by Saint Paul, “Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. v2Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect” (Romans 12:1-2). Love of God includes: a personal attachment of allegiance and loyalty to him; faith as a firm, unswerving adherence to the One to whom we are united by the Father-child relationship; faithfulness to our commitment to him; heartfelt devotion, expressed in our dedication to his righteous standards in the midst of a God-rejecting world; and desire for his presence and relationship.
Children of God are required to love all people, including their enemies. They are also commanded to love all faithful believers in a special way. The love of believers for their Christian brothers and sisters, their neighbors and their enemies must be subordinated to, and controlled and directed by, their love and devotion for God. Love for God is the “first and greatest commandment”. Therefore, God’s holiness, his desire for purity, and his will and standard as revealed in Scripture must never be compromised in our practice of love for all people.
Chiara Lubich wrote a profound presentation on our love of God and neighbors entitled, ‘Act in a spirit of service to all’: “Let us do everything in a spirit of service, whether we are working to spread the kingdom of God or for the good of society, or whether we are carrying out normal household chores. If we see Christ in every neighbor we encounter – whether we have authority over others or they over us or whether we are peers – keeping in mind that Jesus counts as done to Himself whatever we do to others, especially to the least, then this attitude of service will come much more easily.”
I like this illustration from “When Christians Quarrel”: At the entrance to the harbor at the Isle of Man there are two lights. One would think that the two signals would confuse the pilot. But the fact is, he has to keep them in line; as long as he keeps them in line, his ship is safe. It is the same with these commands of Jesus: love of self, the love of God, and love others. When we keep them in line, we remain safe and well in the channel of the Christian life.
We should be quick to show love and mercy because that’s what the Lord has done for us. If you’re a Christian, it’s only because of the grace and mercy of God. The grace and mercy that we have been recipients of is the same grace and mercy we should be willing to give.
Your spouse is going to wrong you. Your kids are going to annoy you. Your friends are going to anger you. It’s in those moments that love is difficult but we’re called to do it. But the Lord doesn’t ask us to love. ‘You shall’ love your neighbor.
Again, it’s not optional. It’s not an “if I have some extra time on my hands” sort of thing. The Christian’s default position is supposed to be one of love. We expect our spouses to treat us graciously, but we’re not willing to do that for him or her. It’s amazing how grace, love, and forgiveness can bring people together. If there is unresolved tension in a close relationship, show them love. Even if they don’t deserve it. Because you’ll be reflecting the love of God. He loved even when it hurt, we should too. Your spouse is going to wrong you. Your kids are going to annoy you. Your friends are going to anger you. It’s in those moments that love is difficult but we’re called to do it. But the Lord doesn’t ask us to love. ‘You shall’ love your neighbor.
The gospel message is a message of love. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
v16This is how we know what love is: Christ gave his life for us. We too, then, ought to give our lives for others! v17If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? v18My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action. – 1 John 3:16
(References: NIV Full Life Study Bible; www.gsflo.org; The Sermon Writer; Bible Commentary)
Let us pray.
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (ECP-BCP Proper 25 Collect)**