The Greatest Commandments

In a memorable — and likely much memorized — episode in the ministry of Jesus, a scribe whose fellows had been laying theological and political traps for Jesus, approached him sincerely.

Keeping with the tradition of asking rabbis to summarize the demands of the law, the scribe asked Jesus “what is the greatest commandment?” (see Mark 12:28-34). Jesus gave him not one, but two: love God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).

These weren’t necessarily radical concepts: other rabbis before and after Jesus cited both of these. But what Jesus did that other rabbis didn’t was combine them. According to Jesus, there is no greater law than these.

The demands of love for God are high, in themselves: we are to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. In a sense, we are to love God with the mind, will, and emotions PLUS an undivided, loyal heart. Our dedication to God must be total: we can harbor no alternative deity or backup means of salvation. Our passions (what our predecessors called “affections”) must be oriented to respond to God and his truth. Our mind, intellect, habits of thinking must be exercised to appreciate the truth of God. And our actions must accord with what our mind has apprehended and what our emotions have praised.

There are many things that threaten our single-minded devotion to God, and divide our hearts from him. The world and its accoutrements demand our passions and emotions, and all too frequently get them (what, for instance, do you get most excited about?). We too frequently decide that we know enough, we have been schooled enough, we have studied enough and can put our minds in “neutral” regarding spiritual things, biblical things, God things. And the temptation to be the spiritual couch potato and either fail to act according to our God-ward thoughts and emotions or to expend all our energy in worldly pursuits (what do you find yourself most tired after?)

As demanding as those expectations are, Jesus adds that we are to love our neighbor as ourself. And this “neighbor” is not merely the one who looks like me, dresses like me, acts like me, but is all those who are different and in need. Which is to say, after all, all of us.

Certainly Jesus’ combination of these two demands is significant. We don’t love God rightly if we don’t love our neighbor. We don’t love our neighbor rightly when we don’t love God. Loving God is ontologically prior to properly loving anyone else, including ourselves. But perhaps we demonstrate or apply love for God by seeking and obtaining the highest good for our neighbor.

We cannot love God or love neighbor without soul that is regenerated and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. And how different Christ-followers would look to each other and to the world should we seek his aid in loving rightly.

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