“Which commandment is the most important of all?”[asked the Scribe]. 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And 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.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
According to both Matthew and Mark, this pivotal question was asked, not in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, as one might imagine it to be (and as Luke remembers it), but near the very end, once he had entered Jerusalem: after Palm Sunday, after the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables.
Imagine, for a moment, that we don’t know anything about the remaining events of Holy Week that led to the crucifixion and, we believe, resurrection of Jesus. For most of his ministry, Jesus and the disciples had been up in the fishing and farming area known as The Galilee. Word about this travelling preacher and healer may have found its way to the religious elites of Jerusalem, or it may have been dismissed as yet another troublemaker from up north, and therefore somebody else’s problem. To introduce a baseball analogy where it clearly doesn’t belong, up to this point the mission and ministry of Jesus and his followers may have been perceived as minor-league, perhaps even like an old barn-storming team that went from one little town to another. But now in the holy city of Jerusalem, they were most definitely breaking into the Major League – maybe even the World Series.
Though the gospel of Mark is fairly charitable toward the questioner, we sense a bit of testing of this small-town preacher who has now had the audacity to bring his show to the big leagues. Vigorous debate about important questions was a necessary quality for any Rabbi, and Jesus now had this doozy placed before him: “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
And Jesus, in reply, links two commandments which has set the path that his followers are supposed to follow, always: love God with everything you’ve got AND love your neighbour as yourself. Express your gratitude and wonder to the maker of everything you see and hold everyone you see with the same degree of concern that you have for your own interests. Love God so fully, that you enter into the love-them-all-with-no-exceptions that God has.
Given how many times we see Jesus in conflict with others, iit’s noteworthy that when Jesus gives this two-part answer to the request to name ONE commandment that stands above all others, the interrogator basically nods his head affirmatively: “Good Answer, Jesus” and then, proving that he was a good active listener, more or less recaps what Jesus has said.
The two scriptures linked here played very different roles in the religious life of this Jewish group, Jesus and his disciples. The first of the two commandments, regarding love of God, comes from the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy (6:4-5) and was a core part of Jewish devotional practice. As explained by Chabad.org, “Shema Yisrael (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל) (“Hear, O Israel”) are the first two words of a section of the Torah that is the centerpiece of the morning and evening prayer services, encapsulating the monotheistic essence of Judaism.” The commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself, comes from the 19th chapter of Leviticus (19_18), amidst a number of notes about the fair and ethical treatment of others. The first part was within daily usage, the second part, was what we might call “part of the larger collection”, yet Jesus puts them together as if they were one single sentence, true love of God naturally flowing over into tangible expressions of love for others.
Given the opportunity to define the bottom line, Jesus could have chosen any commandment he wanted, and with that freedom he chooses love, and then more love. The first commandment, of devotional love expressed for the one, foundational God; the second commandment, expanding one’s core concern beyond the interests of self and family and relatives. Love, that goes deep into the heart of God, and reaches out to the needs of others. Just love.
Such a heavy focus on love might make this all sound very soft and undemanding, but it is far from that. By using the words of the Shema to describe the love that one is to have for God, Jesus brings his listeners back to a form of devotion that shapes every day. Thinking about God is not to be relegated to the Sabbath, but is to be top of mind all the time as we decide what is most important in a day and in our lives. Acknowledging one’s identity as a child of God changes who we are; this is no mere tack-on to positive thoughts or helpful actions.
And the call to love one’s neighbour as an extension of one’s self-love – to place the needs of the greater common good on par with or even above one’s own desires – pushes us to make decisions numerous times each day. “How does this choice impact others?” lifts itself into consciousness over and over again, as we make small decisions about things we do, and big structural decisions about how power is held and expressed in society. And to go beyond that, this insistence upon love of neighbour calls to our creativity, personally and as congregations, to reach beyond the familiar in Christian service. I pray that this is the love expressed by the Rundle United Thrift Shop, which is such a key point of contact with people in need and with people who want to re-use items rather than throwing out the old and manufacturing the new. I pray that this is the love expressed in the public witness of Ralph Connor volunteers handing out information about Truth and Reconciliation, and the small display on the Church steps that has people stop and read and ponder, each day. Later in the service, we will pause with gratitude for those in past generations whose love of God and neighbour has shone brightly in our lives and in the life of the world; I pray that a refreshed sense of their love will guide our choices as we decide what comes next in our interactions with the communities we are called to serve in Christ’s name.
In the commandment to love, there is also a reminder to be wary when something other than love is the motivator. Each time Christ’s name is fraudulently attached to things that do not express God’s loving, creative, invitational intention, my heart breaks and my resolve is strengthened to express with clarity that God is love. Each time judgmental words are aimed at people of a particular ethnicity or gender or sexual identity, each time we step away from accountability for hurtful things that we as Church have done, we are called to lament, and to tangibly reassert our commitment to the God of love.
Jesus had over 600 laws to choose from when asked which commandment was greatest, and he chose love. Love that connects us to God, the life-force of the universe. Love for self and those near to us that expands and expands and expands to touch all living beings. Love expressed in small kind gestures and love expressed by consistently advocating for justice. Love that binds my heart to your heart, and our hearts to the loving heart of God. We are asked over and over again to size up our words and our actions and our choices, by the standard of love. Sometimes, finding the best way to be loving is complex, but a lot of the time it just takes the courage and the selflessness for us as individuals, or as a town, or a province, or a nation, as a congregation or a denomination or a religion, to say, “I know what love demands right now, and I am going to give myself over to that love”.
Children of God, may that ongoing assessment of what we are to do and who we are to be, be alive in your lives… and may you and me and all of us together, repeatedly find expressions of Love. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray that this will be so, Amen.
© 2021 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church