The Greatest Commandment
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matt 22:34-40 (NIV)
If you grew up going to church you have probably heard The Great Commandment recited or alluded to countless times. In the Christian faith, we accept these words without question. If you put your faith in God, it makes sense that you love Him with everything you have. It’s also accepted that we are to love our neighbours; it is the outward manifestation of our inward (or upward) faith. These two tenants are the basis of Christianity.
Not long ago, I heard, for the umpteenth time, this passage quoted at church and something new struck me. Why did Jesus add the second command? He was asked what the greatest was, and He answered that. He didn’t combine the 2 into one command; they were given as separate commands in the Old Testament, and considering He was answering a “expert in the law”, it makes sense that He kept them separate. He didn’t preface His answer by saying there are two commands that are considered the greatest, but He clearly indicated that the second, if not equal, is as close as you can get. Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law, and there were other times He corrected people on their interpretation. He could have taught that the two Laws were really two parts of one Law if He had seen fit to do so.
So why make it clear that the second command goes right along with the first? Again, after decades of this being ingrained into my thinking, it seems rather obvious that I honour God by loving those I come into contact with. As I pondered these, it seems to me that He wanted to make sure it was understood that you can’t ignore people in the name of honouring God; that devotion to God was not an excuse to discriminate or reject a person.
Maybe the first thing that comes to mind are people who use their interpretation of the Bible to justify hate. And while those people are out there, there are plenty of other times throughout scripture that behaviour is condemned. Jesus wouldn’t have to emphasize not hating people in this conversation.
Maybe there is a different antonym of love that Jesus had in mind. We often think of hate being the opposite of love, but what if we apply Eliezer Wiesel’s famous quote “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”? Or maybe instead of indifference we use judgement, justice or personal agenda?
I imagine that for each of us there is a time when we feel that we can justify our lack of showing love to someone is completely justified because we can point to the fact that doing so would be compromising on our effort to honour God, but I can’t think of a situation where that would actually be true.
This passage has taken on a new meaning for me. No longer do I read it as honour God and love your neighbour; it’s honour God by loving your neighbour.