The Greatest Commandment
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 25, 2014
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-34
If we have driven an automobile any length of time many of us have been stopped by the police for one reason or another – speeding, unfastened seatbelt, tag violation, etc. But what if a policeman pulled us over and didn’t ask any of the usual questions? Instead, what if he asked us a philosophical question, “Of all the traffic laws, which one is the most important?” Say what? When we recovered from the shock, which one of the traffic laws would we choose?
Now, Jesus was also asked a highly philosophical question in today’s Gospel lesson. One of the scribes (teacher of the Law) asked, “Of all the commandments which is the most important?” This is a difficult question for a couple of reasons. First, rabbinic tradition numbers the commandments at 613, of which 248 were positive and 365 were prohibitions (thou shall not). Second, it was also a difficult question because all the commandments from which Jesus had to choose were given by God.
The scribe who posed the question to Jesus was not asking which laws need to be obeyed and which can safely be ignored. According to scholars, he was asking, “What is the fundamental premise of the law on which all the individual commands depend?”
To begin with, we note that Jesus had respect for the questioner. The scribe’s question was sincere, he responded to Jesus with wisdom, and Jesus tells him that “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34).
So, the scribe asked Jesus, “Which commandment is first of all?” (12:28). As usual, Jesus answers from the written law, quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 on loving God and Leviticus 19:18 on loving one’s neighbor. Jesus answered, “the first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these!” (Mark 12:28-31)
Understand here that Jesus was not saying anything radically new or at odds with the Jewish tradition. However, he does make a modification from his sources. While Deuteronomy says that we should love God with all our heart, soul, and might, Jesus adds, “With all your mind.” Jesus wants us to think. As scholars explain, “Christian faith does not imply there are thoughts we should not explore, questions we should not ask, or subjects we should not investigate. To have faith in God with all our mind is precisely to believe that nothing we can learn or discover could ever be a threat to belief in God.” That is Good News for every modern-day struggling “Doubting Thomas.”
Although the scribe asked for a single greatest commandment, Jesus gave two answers. And though Jesus’ answers came from different parts of the law (Deuteronomy and Leviticus), the central issue of both is the same: love.
So, what is it that an eternal, omnipotent, and holy God primarily wants from a sinful and finite creature? For sure, God wants our obedience, worship and faith. But primarily, first and foremost, God wants our love.
Is it really surprising when we think of Jesus’ focus on the internal – on issues of the heart which is so typical of Jesus’ teaching? On the occasion of the Last Supper, Jesus stated, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). In the Old Testament, we also read that God’s chief concern is the heart (I Samuel 16:7). And then John’s summary words about the nature of God make the point that the most natural thing in the world is that God should want our love above everything else. John said, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:8). Thus, God is the only God, and we are to love him with our whole being; heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Loving Your Neighbor
But God is not only interested in our loving relationship with Him, but also in our loving relationships with our neighbor. We simply cannot love God in isolation from our other relationships in life. Therefore, Jesus couples the command to love God with the command “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
Regarding the neighbor, the word “love” here does not mean personal liking, a sentimental affection, but active good will – the Greek Agape (unconditional unmerited, sacrificial love). As someone described it: “Love is the set of the will for the eternal welfare of another.” This kind of love is intentional, aggressive and boundless love to everyone.
And who is my neighbor? My neighbor is anybody in need. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus makes it very clear that neighborliness knows no boundaries. In that parable, Jesus never identifies the man by the side of the road; he is only a “man” which means anyone (male, female, friend, foe, anyone.)
Another distinctive note about this command to “love your neighbor as yourself” is that this “love” must be specific, not general. Even the writer of Leviticus does not speak of this way of loving as an abstraction. The verses leading up to the command mention a series of specific applications. One example is that farmers should leave some crops around the edge of the field and some grapes in the vineyard” for the poor and the alien” (Leviticus 19:10). And think again of what specifically, the Samaritan did for the victim in Jesus’ parable: bandaged his wounds, provided for the victim’s transformation, settled him in quarters, took care of him, arranged for special attention during his absence and came back to check on him. You simply can’t get much more specific than that.
Thus, love is our inner commitment to God that is expressed in all our conduct and relationships.
Insights not to miss
Years ago, Sr. Francis of Assisi wrote about all this in a meaningful prayer. Praying that his prayer will become our prayer, I conclude:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, life;
Where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Maser, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
Dr. Brady is a retired South Georgia Conference pastor who lives in the Atlanta area. His non-profit organization, Hal Brady Ministries, focuses on preaching, teaching, conducting seminars, and inspiring others to lead and serve. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.