A bunch of Pharisees descend on Jesus, trying to trick him into giving a wrong answer. This is “gotcha” journalism, first-century style.
Seeing an opening, a bunch of Pharisees descend on Jesus, also trying to trick him into giving a wrong answer. This is “gotcha” journalism, first-century style. Discrediting your opponent is much older than this year’s presidential race, I’m afraid. So, they ask Jesus: “Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?”
My guess is that they expect Jesus to pick one of the Ten Commandments ”say, Thou shalt have no other gods before me ”and say that is the greatest commandment. And, no matter which commandment Jesus chooses, the Pharisees are ready with 39 reasons why he’s wrong.
But, Jesus fools them. Instead, he quotes Deuteronomy. Not one of the Ten Commandments at all, but the general instructions that God gives to the nation on how they are to live. It’s called the Shema: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
And then Jesus adds, “And, the second is like unto it ”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
This one thing Jesus says is the most important: loving God and loving your neighbor.
For devout, righteous Jews, loving God meant keeping the commandments ”the Ten Commandments. Here they are:
1. Having no other gods.
2. Not making idols.
3. Not taking God’s name in vain.
4. Remembering the Sabbath day.
5. Honoring your parents.
6. Not killing others.
7. Not committing adultery.
8. Not stealing.
9. Not bearing false witness.
10. Not coveting the things of your neighbor.
The first four commandments have to do with our relationship with God, and the remaining six commandments have to do with our relationship with others. So, Jesus sums it up ”love God, love your neighbor.
So far, I’m not saying anything you haven’t heard before, but here’s where I’m about to begin. Because in Moses’ day, and in Jesus’ day as well, they had a very different view of what “love” within the community meant.
In our 21st-century, individualized world, when we hear we should “love” God and our neighbor, we instantly think of “warm fuzzies.” I’m supposed to have a warm feeling in my heart, and if I’m with a group of like-minded folks, we’ll all join hands and sing “Kum Ba Ya.” But, as you can imagine, that is not what the biblical writers had in mind.
They didn’t think of love as a subjective, emotional response. They say love as a verb, not a noun. Love meant action. Love meant living a certain way, a way that distinguished God’s people from all other people. Loving God meant worshipping the One, True God ”not hedging your bet by making idols to the sun god, and the moon god, and the god of the harvest, and worshipping those, too. No, loving God meant throwing your lot in with the One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Loving God also meant honoring God’s name. Not speaking it lightly, or profanely, or invoking it to bring down curses upon someone or something. Loving God meant respecting who God is, and what God has done, and speaking God’s name carefully.
Loving God meant resting on one day to commemorate God’s good creation. To take time out of the endless difficulty of eeking out a living to acknowledge the God of creation and to worship him.
Loving God also meant that you loved your neighbor, which meant anybody around. Jesus clarified that with the story of the Good Samaritan. So, you loved God by loving your neighbor. By honoring your parents. By not killing other people ”which sounds really strange to us today, but not in a brutal world where power was supreme, life was cheap and scores were settled by who lived or who died.
To parse this idea of not killing other people into arcane arguments about capital punishment, war and so on is to miss the point. The point is that life is sacred, and human life is especially so, and love for God extends to the person sitting next to me, because he or she is made in God’s image.
Loving God also meant that I don’t steal from my neighbor, that I don’t lie about my neighbor, that I don’t cheat on my wife, and that I don’t even envy the things my neighbor has, because I might be tempted to kill him in order to steal his stuff, and take his wife for my own. These are all interconnected.
Loving God, then, is action. And our love for God gets expressed in ways that honor God and honor those who are made in God’s image.
This is the most important thing Jesus ever said. Love God, love your neighbor. Jesus thought this was so important he explained that all the law and prophets hang on these two simple ideas.
So, if that isn’t enough to make us sit up and take notice, Jesus begins to do a lot of things to show us what this means.
Â· To the woman caught breaking the commandment not to commit adultery, Jesus extends love, not wrath, by telling her, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
Â· To those wanting to know where to draw the line on who my neighbor is, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan, which erases all racial, ethnic, cultural and spiritual boundaries to neighborliness.
Â· To those who thought that their neighbors were not the afflicted, Jesus touches lepers, makes blind eyes see and lame legs walk.
Â· For those who don’t understand what it means to love, Jesus foreshadows his own sacrifice by saying, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Â· John picks up the refrain connecting loving God and loving others in 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.”
So, this is it ”love God, love one another.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va. This column was adapted from his blog.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.