Which is the Greatest Commandment?: Jesus’ unique answer

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching, called La Petite Tombe; Etching, engraving, and drypoint; 1657.

“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.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

“Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” This was a common question in Jesus’ day, as well as before and after. It was understood as one of the most important questions to be answered and would tell all who were listening where Jesus stood on what mattered most.

Many answers to this question were given over the history of rabbinical interpretation, seeing summaries of God’s law in:

  • Psalm 15, which begins “Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain?”
  • Isaiah 33:15-16 – which outlines six characteristics of the life lived well
  • Micah 6:8, which speaks of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God
  • Isaiah 56:1, which calls people to “Maintain justice and do what is right”
  • Amos 5:4, “Seek me and live”
  • Habakkuk 2:4, “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness,” or “by faith”

Jesus’ response is interesting for many reasons. First, unlike any other proposed response listed above, Jesus draws His answer directly from the Torah, the literal law of Moses, and not elsewhere. Second, Jesus summarizes both tables of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, which speak of responsibility to God and responsibility to neighbor. Third, Jesus makes love the central active force of response to God, and not just legal obligation or certain activities. Fourth, Jesus’ answer is apparently unique. We do not have any record of other rabbis or teachers before Jesus’ time bringing these two commandments together. It may exist, but we do not have any record of it.

Jesus’ teaching is full of wisdom and insight. It’s hard not to long for more of what He says. As Paul the Apostle tells us, in Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

What Must Happen If We Want to Love Others: Encountering the Heart of the Golden Rule

Living the Golden Rule.001

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summarizes all the Law and the prophets—the entire Old Testament guidance from God—with a simple sentence known as the golden rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” In some ways, this is even more concise and straightforward than another of Jesus’ well-known teachings about what God is looking for. In that other setting (Matthew 22:36-40), after beings asked what the greatest commandment is in God’s law, Jesus sums up everything by calling human beings to love God with all of who we are and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Here, however, the golden rule calls us immediately into action, forcing us to avoid abstraction with the emphatic: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” The place of reflection begins with the question, “Am I loving so-and-so as myself?” And so we may begin to think about others and what holds us back from loving them. But here, reflection is immediately plunged into the much more measurable question, “Am I doing toward so-and-so what I wish so-and-so was doing to me?”

This is why the golden rule is not only memorable but powerful. Quickly, in Jesus’ statement we are confronted by many issues we otherwise might avoid. Not only are we forced to consider, “Should I call that person facing difficulty today because that is the sort of care I would like to receive from someone?”, but the more emphatic call to action, “If that’s what I wish someone would do for me, then that is what I should do by  God’s grace and power.” It is not contemplation of the act of love that counts, but moving to action in love. Jesus tells us “this is the law and the prophets.” In other words, all the previous guidance of God was to force us into the encounter with the love of God that leads us into the activity of love toward others.

Living the Golden Rule.002Here is one of the places where the golden rule is more than just activity, however. Jesus’ words push us into the territory of our hearts, where we encounter both the beauty and the deficiency within. As Jesus says in another place, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart” (Matthew 12:28, NLT).  What we do flows from who we are.

If we struggle to live out the golden rule the cause is not because we do not know something or are missing the right techniques or skills. It is fundamentally a heart problem pointing to what we love and desire.  Human barriers within me stand in the way of love’s action. Because I do not see others as human made in the image of God as I see myself as human, I fail to love. Because I fear that my love given to others will not be reciprocated to me, I fail to love. Because I do not really want really good things to come to others in ways that outpace good things coming to me, I fail to love. The possibilities are as various as the human heart is unique, but all of them lead us into a deep encounter with ourselves and our hearts. Each of these examples are not failures of technique or action, but heart failure. The fundamental problem in our failure to love is a that love has not transformed our desires at the most basic level.

And so, Jesus’ teaching brings us ultimately into an encounter with the God who is love. When we find—or perhaps, better, are found by—God’s love, that love begins to transform every sphere of our lives and dark corner of our hearts. As that happens, our desires in life, and specifically the way we see and loves others, also is transformed. The more we know the love of God, the more our lives are changed.  Jesus’ words in the golden rule takes us on a journey of transformation that begins by looking outward toward others, leads us inward to our own need for God, and then takes us back outward to engage with others. Changed from the inside out, we steadily become people who love others, not just in contemplation or abstraction, but in the tangible doing that the golden rule invites us into.

Lord, help me to love others like You do and to love in action even as I desire for myself to be loved in action. Transform my heart, bring order to my desires, and shape me to reflect You in this world.

The Greatest Thing

Remade bulletin cover

I concluded series “Remade” this weekend at Eastbrook Church with a look at Jesus’ teaching in Mark 12:28-34. “Remade” is the third part of our Gospel of Mark series (see also “The Real Jesus” and “King Coming“).

My message was entitled “The Greatest Thing,” and looked at this central teaching that many of us have encountered before about what the greatest commandment is. In the question, I took us through some key questions:

  • how can we tell if we are growing in love for God?
  • what is love?
  • who really is my neighbor?

You can listen to my message at the Eastbrook web-site here. You can also follow the RSS feed for Eastbrook sermons or follower Eastbrook Church on Twitter or Facebook.

The outline for the message is included below:Read More »