Most people, whether they are Christian or not, are aware of what we often refer to as the “Greatest Commands.” These are the two commands of loving God and loving neighbor. They sound so simple and in fact, they are pretty simple. However, these two great commands are also very challenging and sometimes it seems like our assumed familiarity with these commands obscures the challenge. So allow me to poke, prod, and really go all preacher on us for a few minutes.
Years ago I was traveling through Illinois down the very boring stretch of Interstate 57 and after sever cups of coffee, nature was calling. So trying to make the most of my stop, I pulled into a Cracker Barrel restaurant thinking I would get a bite to eat while also stopping to use the restroom. Now I’ve ate at a many of Cracker Barrel restaurants in my lifetime and the men’s room is always to the left and the women’s to the right. So with nature really desperately calling, I glanced up as I entered the restroom to my left and saw the sign that said “Men” on it.
So I entered into the restroom and seeing as how desperately nature was calling, I just saw a stall and opened the door so that I could take care of business. However, it was in the middle of taking care of business that it dawned on me, “Rex, why aren’t there any urinals in this restroom?” That was about the moment when beads of sweat began forming on my forehead as I heard the sound of a couple of women entering this restroom. Apparently my ability to read and interpret a simple sign such as the gender of a restroom was not as accurate as I assumed.
Now let me share a more important point with you: I suspect that for many people, including myself, these two great commands of loving God and loving neighbor have become so familiar that we glance at them, assume we know what Jesus is saying. However, could it be that our assumption is a little off… perhaps a lot?
In Matthew 22, the occasion is a rather dubious question. The Pharisees and Sadducees have already tried entrapping Jesus with questions about paying taxes to Ceasar and the resurrection of the dead, so now they send in a lawyer to literally ask which commandment in the Torah is most important. However, Jesus answers correctly by quoting the Shēma from Deuteronomy 6 saying in v. 37, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.” This was the correct answer because obeying Torah was all about loving God.
“Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.”
Yet this is where everything gets interesting because Jesus didn’t stop with the Shēma. Instead he continues to answer the question with two other points. In v. 39 Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19 to say that there is a second great command, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” So now loving God is impossible without loving our neighbors and likewise, when we love our neighbors we are loving God. Obeying both commands happens by doing the teachings of the Law and Prophets. This is why Jesus says in v. 40 “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
That seems strait-forward except that there is a twist here. Jesus has taken the role of a prophet calling people to repentance with the promised hope of coming salvation. In doing so, Jesus comes as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets which mentioned during his sermon preached on a mountain in Galilee (cf. Matt 5:17). So not only is Jesus disclosing the interpretive lens through which he understands the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is also living is the embodiment of the Law and the Prophets. Now Jesus becomes our interpretive lens for how we understand the teachings of the law and in fact, the teachings of all scripture, and how we love both God and neighbor.
But I’m not sure all Christians like this. We gather around the Lord’s Table in sanctuaries for worship where we confess through song and prayer that Jesus is Lord and hear the word of God proclaimed to us through scripture and sermon but does that transcend the way we live. Do our beliefs and values really become Christ-like?
Less than a hundred years ago there were Christians living in America that defended the racist and discriminatory practices against Blacks in this nation. Every person, Christian or not, can look back on this awful history and see just how badly these Christians failed in living the great commands. But today, in the name of what is supposedly good and politically beneficial, there are Christians who will defend unjust practices against people seeking to migrate into this nation from other countries… practices that have now rendered great harm by separating children from their parents in immigration detention facilities. This happens despite what scripture has to teach us about treating “foreigners and aliens”, despite what scripture teaches us about showing mercy, and despite how Jesus treated the Samaritans and Gentiles (enemies of the Israelites). This happens despite the fact that Jesus tells us we are to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves.
So I wonder if a hundred years from now, a generation of Christians will look on this generation and wonder how our generation could so badly miss the most simple teaching of Jesus just we wonder about those Christians in the 1950’s during Jim Crow? The good news though is that just as there were Christians during the twentieth century that defended racism, there were Christians knew such racism was wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus meant loving Black people as themselves. For that reason I am also confident that there are plenty of Christians who understand the denial of justice and mercy towards foreigners is wrong and that loving God and loving neighbor by following Jesus means loving all foreigners as ourselves.
May we have the moral courage to hear and obey Jesus when says, “You must love the Lord your God with all your hear, with all your being, and with all your mind… You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”