I was an elementary school teacher before entering the monastery. One of the things a teacher learns is that it’s important from time to time – particularly after the summer break – to go back to the basics. You can’t build or make progress without a good foundation, so it’s important to make sure your students have a solid grasp of the basics before moving on to new or more challenging subjects.
Going back to the basics appears to be what Jesus the teacher is doing here. Our gospel text today comes at the end of several tests that the Pharisees and scribes have put before Jesus. It is clear that their intention is to trap him[i] into saying something that would either offend the authorities or turn the crowds against him. To this point, he has successfully eluded these traps.
Here is another trap. “Teacher,” someone asks, “which commandment is the greatest?” If they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite command, he’ll be guilty of downplaying the other commandments. Since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical. They are trying to force him into an impossible situation where any answer he gives can be challenged. I suppose it’s a little like asking a parent which of their children is their favorite. Choosing one of their children will make the others feel less important or less loved. The wise parent will say, “I love them all the same.
Jesus knows what’s going on. An easy way to get off this hook would have been for Jesus to say, “Every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is great. Each commandment is great.” That would have been an effective way out of this, the theological version of “I love them all the same.” Instead, Jesus chooses to quote a Bible verse – Deuteronomy 6:5 to be exact – which reads, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This, says Jesus, is the greatest and first commandment.
He has gone back to the basics. The words of Deuteronomy 6:5 are part of the Shema (sheh-mah), the basic and essential creed of Judaism, the sentence with which every Jewish service still opens, and the first text which every Jewish child commits to memory. The Shema calls us to give to God a total love, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions. All religion starts with that love, the total commitment of our lives to God.
As we might say in today’s vernacular, Jesus “nails it.” No one who was listening could argue with the fact that the Shema – loving God with every fiber and aspect of our existence – is the commandment that is at the heart of Jewish faith… and at the heart of Christian faith as well.
Love is what identifies us as God’s people. We believe that God is love[ii] and that in God we “live and move and have our being.”[iii] Our lives of faith are anchored in this love. Love is basic to who we are; for us, it is the essence of what it means to be image-bearers of God. If we were asked to summarize the message of our faith in one word, that word would have to be love. We are, as St Paul says, “rooted and grounded in love.”[iv]
The Greek word is agape. There are other Greek words that can be translated as love: philos (fee-los), the love between friends, and eros, the love between lovers. But agape is the greatest love, the most all-encompassing love; it refers to an unconditional and sacrificial love, the kind of love God has shown to us.
When Jesus responds to the Pharisee’s trick question by quoting a portion of the Shema, he is throwing back in their faces something they took to be exceedingly basic, something that was second nature to even the youngest Jewish child. This is slightly insulting to the Pharisees; it exposes the fact that the Pharisees were not really interested in seeing if Jesus could answer their question since even the youngest person there knew the answer already. The ones posing the question are made to look foolish.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there: He adds another commandment, that he says is like the first one: it too is rooted in love. But this time, love is commanded for those around us: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” “On these two commandments,” Jesus says, “hang all the law and the prophets.”
This second commandment is not new. It is a quote from Leviticus 19:18. It insists that true love of God must express itself in love for our fellow human beings. The order of the two commandments is important: Love of God comes first; love of our neighbors follows.
The Biblical teaching about human beings is not that humans are a collection of chemical elements or simply one type of living organism among many, but that human beings are made in the image of God. It is for that reason that we are commanded to love every person; even, says Jesus, to love our enemies.[v] We are, as we say in our baptismal covenant, to “respect the dignity of every human being.” (BCP, 305)
God’s laws for how we can best exist and function in the world fall along these two directional axes of love of God and love of neighbor. To be truly religious is to love God and to love those whom God has made in God’s own image – not with a vague sentimentality, but with a total commitment that manifests itself in a deep devotion to God and in practical service of others.
What is the greatest commandment? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So how are you doing?
Would you characterize your love of God as “wholehearted”? “all-encompassing”? “unconditional and sacrificial”?
If not, what’s holding you back? What is it that has displaced God as the primary object of your affection? What has inserted itself into your heart and soul and mind as your first, true love? Judging by your thoughts and your actions, what is it that you love most of all?
What would it mean to make God your first love, to love God above all else? What would that look like in your life?
And what about “loving your neighbor as yourself”? How’s that going?
Who is it that you find most difficult to love? Who repels you, angers you, stirs up ill will in you? How can you begin to try to love them? Not necessarily to like them, or to agree with them, or to want to be friends with them… but to love them – as God loves us all. God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”[vi] God’s love is gratuitous, unconditional, freely given to all. It’s persistent and it never gives up on anyone!
If you’re having difficulty loving someone, pray for them. Bring them into the presence of the God of Love who knows them as they are. Hold them before God. Try to see them with compassion, as God sees them.
You can’t build unless you have a strong foundation. The invitation for today is to go “back to the basics,” back to loving God with all your heart and soul and mind and to loving your neighbor as yourself. There is nothing more important – or more urgently needed in the world – than this.
[i] Matthew 22:35 ‘ “…a lawyer asked him a questions to test him…”
[ii] I John 4:9
[iii] Acts 17:28
[iv] Ephesians 3:17
[v] Matthew 5:43-45
[vi] Matthew 5:45
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