The Greatest Commandment

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
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This is a familiar Bible passage, and one that Jesus quotes from the ancient writings (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus). All the laws and regulations of history boiled down to two commands. And they are not what one might expect. The greatest commandment isn’t to believe; it isn’t a “shalt not”; it isn’t even to “obey.” Instead, the greatest commandment is to LOVE– love God wholly and without reserve, and love your neighbor “as yourself.”

It sounds so simple, but we don’t do it. In fact, we spend countless hours and waste energy trying to make the commandments MORE complicated and adding conditions, additions, interpretations, excuses, and critiques.

There is not enough time or space to list all the ways we try to avoid the greatest commandment, but here are a few I struggle with:

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  • My heart–I love the Lord, but I don’t always love Him with my whole heart. I love His creation; I love His promises; I love the “idea” of God. But I also love my comfort zone; I love my own moods (especially happiness and self-esteem); I love the admiration of my peers; I love God, but…I don’t always pray to God the way I would talk to my best friend. I don’t seek Him out ahead of everyone else. I don’t always seek His correction or welcome His Lordship.
  • My soul–Most of us would claim that we are “spiritual” on some level. But many of us (including me) don’t do a very good job of tending to our souls. We assume that behaviors and habits and a list of beliefs are “enough.” We spend very little time in prayer, worship, and Bible study (compared to the time we spend on chores, sleep, entertainment, driving around, daydreaming, etc.). I’m not suggesting that we all need to go into a cloister (especially in light of the second great commandment to love our neighbor). But souls, like bodies and minds, need to be nourished, exercised, and cared for. Very few of us make it a priority to nourish our soul-connection with God–to Love Him with all our soul. We skim over this part of the commandment, assuming it is much the same as loving Him with all our heart or all our mind.
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  • My mind– My mind wanders– a lot! And I spend a lot of time learning “about God,” instead of learning “from God.” I want to know what God is like– to be able to explain Him or comprehend Him. But God is bigger than my ability to “know” or even to imagine. And yet, He invites me to “know” Him, not just know about Him. In fact, He invites me to “follow” Him, to be His disciple, to model my character and my thoughts after His own.
  • My neighbor–I want to love humanity. I want to love “everybody”– from a comfortable distance! But God calls me to love my neighbor– that person who cuts in front of me at the grocery store, or revs their car engine outside my bedroom window at 3 in the morning, or laughs at me when I’m having a bad hair day. And not just “love” them in the sense of tolerating them– God wants me to love them “as myself.” To value them, reach out to them when I might rather avoid them, or seek peace when they are “pushing my buttons.” God wants me to offer them grace and forgiveness, when I might expect to demand justice or recognition.
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  • “As Myself”–Sometimes, I don’t love myself. Sometimes, I idolize myself. Other times, I despise myself. And the attitude I have rubs off on to others. God doesn’t call me to idolize my neighbor; to lie to my neighbor about Sin and its consequences, or to let my neighbor’s wicked behavior go unchallenged. Just as God wants to call me to repentance, He wants me to lovingly reach out to my neighbor, not enable her/him to live a lie. But if I am living a lie–not dealing with my own sin– I cannot demand from my neighbor what I am not willing to give to God. Similarly, I can’t give honest love to my neighbor when I despise myself– God created us both and loves us with an everlasting love! How can I give love I am not willing to receive?
  • My understanding of “commandment.” God has the authority to command my attention, my obedience, my worship, and my loyalty. But my “love?” God has given us the CHOICE to Love Him, and to Love others– He also gives us the imperative to live our lives filled with Love. It is not God’s will that we Love out of coercion, robot-like and against our own free will. Rather, God commands us to submit our will to Love in every situation. We are slaves to Sin, powerless to love perfectly–even when we try, or think we are doing well, we will fall into faulty thinking, ungoverned emotions, and uninformed, unloving reactions. We WILL break this greatest commandment, just as we will break other, lesser commandments. But God has also promised to listen to our confession and forgive us, redeeming our soul, cleansing our heart, and renewing our mind as we follow Him. God does not command us to Love perfectly in our own power. He does command us to choose Love–first and foremost for Him, and then for those around us whom He loves. In so doing, we will grow to understand the power of God’s commands as we experience the power of His Love!
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..And Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

How can I please God? What does He require of me? I’ve been exploring the most basic answer to this question by looking at Jesus’ answer to the related question, “What is the greatest of all the commandments?” (See Matthew 22: 34-40) Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy (6:5) as He gave His two-part answer– Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself! He went on to say that ALL of the commandments and laws hang on these two concepts.

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So today, I want to look closer at the last of these– Love your neighbor as yourself. In another gospel, we see that Jesus is challenged to clarify, “Who is my neighbor?” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2010%3A25-37&version=NIV When we want to justify ourselves, or narrow the letter of the law, we often stall obedience by seeking to “clarify” God’s commands. Jesus’ words are broad, but perfectly clear– Love your neighbor as yourself–love the next person you meet; the person closest to you, as if they were YOU.

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This doesn’t give us room to reject anyone or exclude anyone from our love, compassion, or respect as a child of God. Nor does it give us the right to live someone else’s life, or take away their God-given free will to think and act for themselves. I have been guilty of both offenses, and I don’t think I am alone.

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Two of the great mistakes we make in failing to “love our neighbor” come through fear and pride. In the story of the “Good Samaritan,” we see two examples of a priest and a Levite, who fail to show love to their fellow Jew. They act in fear– fear of being the next victim, perhaps, but also fear of being inconvenienced or pulled away from their plans and purposes, and fear of being “defiled.” How many times do I let fear keep me from reaching out? How often do I fear that people, even God, will think less of me for associating with those who need help? Yet Jesus was known for interacting with sinners, lepers, and other outcasts. How can I act differently, and please God more than His own son?

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The other great mistake I have made is to “love” out of pride. Sometimes, I think I have more wisdom, or more material wealth, or greater skills, and that it is my right to “help” my neighbor in my own way and at my own convenience. I think I know how they should live, what they should do, and what they need– more than they do; sometimes even more than God knows! But I cannot love where I am not willing to be humble. This is true with God, and it is equally true with others.

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That doesn’t mean that I love others best when I let them take advantage to my harm or to their own harm. And it doesn’t mean that I must agree with them completely or deny what I know to be right. But it means that I must value their well-being and worth in God’s eyes as equal to (and often greater) than my own. It makes me feel good to “fix” someone else by fixing their circumstances, or demanding that they accept my help, but their greater need may be to take control of their own circumstances and attitudes. My need to be “right” or “righteous” or “charitable” needs to take a back seat to whatever their greater need may be. I need to listen more than I speak; wait when I would rather act (or vice versa); to take direction rather than give it; and to give advice rather than orders.

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The Apostle Paul spoke at length about love:

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13: 1-7 NIV (via biblegateway.com)
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I can “care” about others; I can be generous; I can be knowledgeable; I can volunteer, and make sacrifices; I can “feel” deeply, and empathize with others– and still NOT love them. Conversely, I can disagree with them about a number of things, including their life choices, political views, and spending habits, and still love them as Christ loves them. I can love those who like me, or ignore me; those who hate me, as well as those who love me back. But I cannot do this in pride or in my own emotions and thoughts. This kind of love can only be sustained by the source of true Love– God Himself.

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This is why it is so important to learn from Jesus’ example. His perfect Love casts out fear and pride, and allows us to see others (and ourselves!) in the proper perspective.

A New Command

34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:34-35 (NIV) taken from http://www.biblegateway.com
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Jesus was about to be tried and condemned to die. He was giving His disciples last instructions and reminders. But in the midst of it all, He gave this “new” command. I’ve read this passage dozens of times, and yet it struck me, possibly because we have just started a new year, that Jesus calls this a new command. Love one another. As if this was a revolutionary concept; as if it had never been spoken before.

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So I began to search. ” You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. ” (Deuteronomy 6:5 ESV) “Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) “So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. ” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are commanded to love God and to love their neighbors, especially to those who might otherwise know only hatred or injustice– enemies, conquered peoples, resident aliens, widows, orphans, etc.. Most often, the commands are given in negative terms– how NOT to treat others. “Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not bear false witness…”

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There is nothing completely new about Jesus’ command in John 13, but it IS new– it is a positive command to show love for one another. And Jesus goes further– “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” This goes beyond simply seeing that others are treated fairly within the broader society. Jesus washed feet. He went out of his way to speak to those who were despised and marginalized– tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers. He didn’t write a check to a non-profit charity and pat himself on the back. He didn’t share a political cartoon about Pharisees or the Roman Emperor with his followers or join the Jerusalem March for Jewish Rights–he challenged the Pharisees face-to-face about their unjust practices and healed the family members of Roman officials. He gave His life– not just on the cross, but in serving others’ needs throughout His earthly life.

Love One Another. It isn’t a suggestion. It is a command–one Jesus gave directly to His disciples. It is not a new command to the Church; but it is one we have not obeyed fully. We love those Christians in our small group at church, or those who share our politics, or those who look and talk just like us. Or we “love” those Christians who are struggling thousands of miles away– from our safe and comfortable lives thousands of miles away.

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I find myself often reading this command, but trying to obey it the same way I look at the Ten Commandments– obedience by omission; obedience in the negative. “Thou shalt not offend. Thou shalt not intrude. Thou shalt not condescend.” But that’s where I stop. I don’t wash feet. I don’t visit the sick or disgraced. Sometimes I send a check or donate a box of unwanted items.

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What would this new year look like if I followed this command more fully? What if, instead of just showing love to those I already like, or when it’s convenient, I reached out across town or across the globe to share my time, my heart, my resources, my skills, with those who need them most? What if I obeyed Jesus’ command to love those around me as Jesus has already loved me?

What if I dared to pray that God would bless others through me, instead of just asking that everyone would “be blessed.”

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In this new year, God, let this be a new command– one that I follow with my whole heart– that I should love others as You have loved me!

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