The Greatest Commandment

Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” All three of the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) report the conversation between Jesus and the scribe/lawyer who asked the question. It’s intriguing to compare these three accounts (Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40; and Luke 10:25-28). I would assume that Jesus often emphasized what he considered to be the most important commandment in his faith. Such a choice would have defined his understanding of God and the path Jews were expected to follow in obedience to their covenantal Lord. 

Mark has Jesus begin by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which is the central confession of Judaism: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (The commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself is found in Leviticus 19:18.)

Matthew omits the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”) and has Jesus say, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”

Luke uses this question regarding the greatest commandment as a background to the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the man, “What is written in the law? How do you read?” The lawyer responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus confirms the man’s answer, but the lawyer asks, “And who is my neighbor?”—a question which is answered by the parable of the Good Samaritan. 

I suggest we can benefit from all three versions of this encounter between Jesus and a religious scribe/lawyer. Each Gospel writer has a somewhat different take on this tradition, and all three reflect authentic insights regarding Jesus’ answer. 

  1. Jesus, like other rabbis of his time, agreed on the primacy of the commandment to love God with all of one’s being. 
  2. Other rabbis also stressed a love of one’s neighbor as essential to the Jewish faith. 
  3. By quoting the Shema, Mark emphasizes the central place of Israel’s covenantal God. Even today, a synagogue service officially begins with the congregation quoting the Shema. Jesus would have repeated the Shema all his life. Jews quoted the Shema as they entered the Nazi gas chambers just as Christians quoted the Lord’s Prayer before they were murdered. We must never, never, never forget that Jesus was a Jew. His entire life, ministry, and teachings are inexplicable when we forget his Jewish heritage. 
  4. Matthew insists that these two commandments (loving God and loving one’s neighbor) sum up the entire Scriptures. “Th Law and the Prophets” was a way of referring to the Jewish Bible. Those parts of the Hebrew Scriptures were considered “canon” by most Jews in Jesus’ day. Jesus (and Matthew) was saying that a primary love of God and one’s neighbor is the essence of the Jewish faith. Without that love, one’s “faith” is empty and hypocritical. These love commandments go together. It’s impossible to love God without loving what and whom God loves. Authentic love is indivisible. The author of John says that we lie when we claim to love God whom we cannot see while not loving our sisters and brothers whom we can see. There is an indispensable connection between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our love. God loves us unconditionally. However, we cannot love God without loving those whom God loves (which includes everyone). 
  5. Luke places the words regarding these two commandments in the mouth of the lawyer, not Jesus. In doing so, Luke sets the lawyer up for a crucial lesson regarding the depths of God’s love and the love he and the rest of us are required to have for one another. The scribal lawyer (in Judaism, lawyers served as religious and legal experts), like all lawyers, is looking for loopholes. He wants to know whom he must regard as his neighbor and whom he can refuse neighborly love. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that all people in need are our neighbors, even our enemies. Jesus heavy emphasis on loving our enemies was unique in his culture. Other rabbis also spoke of loving enemies, but Jesus made it the central part of his mature love ethic. We are to love our enemies because we are to be like God who loves Her enemies (See Matthew 5:43-48).
  6. In revealing the greatest commandment, Jesus adds an additional word to Deuteronomy 6:5. We are to love God with all our “mind” as well as all of our heart, soul, and strength. What does it mean to love God with all our mind? At the very least, it means to be dedicated to seeking the truth. All truth ultimately comes from God who is the Creator of this universe. “Truth” is one of the transcendentals of God’s eternal nature. A love for God must include a respect for truth wherever we find it in God’s creation. I shock people by telling them I am a true conservative—I believe in “conserving the truth” wherever I find it! No one possesses all truth. We are all at best seeking truth. There may well be truths which are beyond the ability of human minds to comprehend. In other words, there may be truths which are suprarational. But no truth can be irrational. If all truth ultimately comes from God, then Christians should never be afraid of the truth. Such fear betrays a fundamental distrust in God. Truth is valid whether it comes from science, the humanities, psychology, philosophy, or religion. Far too many Christians in American Christianity have never learned to love God and God’s creation with their minds. 
  7. Loving God with all our mind is also related to the practice of repentance. The Greek word for repentance literally means “a transformation of the mind.” In Jesus’ teachings, such a transformation is absolutely necessary to “enter the Kin-dom of God” (See Mark 1:14-15) Such repentance involves accepting, valuing, and receiving God’s radical new alternative revealed in the teachings, life, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The ways in which we think are usually formed by what we observe in others. We learn how to survive, thrive, and navigate life from our parents, other humans, and societal norms. We “imitate” our surroundings. We embrace patterns of behavior and “inherit” paradigms of interpreting the world (often subconsciously) which determine who we are and what we value in life. Too often, this “inheritance” includes fear, suspicion, prejudice, competition, greed, violence, envy, jealousy, covetousness, a desire for revenge, and egotism. A false self develops when these shape our being. Our true and authentic self, made in God’s image, never grows and blossoms. Repentance involves discovering our true self as a unique child of God as we shed the false selves we have embraced. We are promised that truth will set us (our true selves) free. The discovery and appropriation of such truth requires a “transformation of our minds” as well as of our hearts, souls, and strength. God may use us despite our ignorance, but God cannot use our ignorance. 
  8. In the synoptic tradition we are told that the love of God and one another sums up the entirety of Law and the Prophets. There is no other commandment greater than these love commandments. Properly understood, there is only one commandment which requires a love of God and a love of others. This love commandment encapsulates the intent of the entirety of Scripture from God’s perspective. All Scripture must be read and guided by the priority of this love. Jesus’ hermeneutic was based on his experience of Abba’s love for him and all creation. (Hermeneutic refers to the principles by which we interpret and apply Scripture.) Unconditional, indiscriminate, self-giving, and everlasting love must always be the lens through which we interpret the Bible and approach God. Jesus’ teachings, life, deeds, death, and resurrection reveal the nature of this unfathomable love. As John Dominic Crossan says, Jesus (who is God’s love in flesh) trumps the Bible. Any interpretation or use of the Bible which is not motivated, guided, and implemented by love is both wrongheaded and “wrong-hearted.” Love wins because God is love!
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