Now one of the experts in the Torah came up and heard them arguing. Seeing that Jesus had answered them well, he asked, “Which commandment is the most important of them all?”
Jesus replied, “The most important is, ‘Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, with your whole soul, with your whole mind, and with your whole strength.’ This is the second most important: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is more important than these.”
Something similar to these words are recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels. In Mark and Matthew, they are placed on the lips of Jesus; in Luke they are placed on the lips of his questioner. Either way, they express the essence of what Jesus wanted to communicate, both in response to the question of which Old Testament command is most important and in response to the question of how eternal life is obtained. As such, we would do well to give them some additional attention. We will not treat them in detail here. Instead, we will hit the highlights of what Jesus has to say and ask how they impact our lives as his disciples.
Setting the Stage
Mark’s version of events is remarkable in that, unlike Matthew and Luke, he quotes the entire text known as the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). This is not because Matthew and Luke had any problem with the Shema; rather, it is simply that Mark (with his eye for detail) wanted to be clear about the theological framework for Jesus’ answer.
That framework is made up of the affirmation that there is only one God and the affirmation that Israel stands under the authority and protection of that God. These affirmations have the rhetorical effect of raising a question in the mind of the reader. What is Israel’s responsibility to the one God who is its Lord? It is that question that forms the logical foundation for what follows.
The chief responsibility of those who wish to obey God and receive eternal life is to love God. It is all too easy to miss the simple beauty of this way of thinking about soteriology. As he so often does, Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter. The relationship that God has forged with His people is special, and it deserves nothing less than the highest and best of all possible responses—love.
There are at least three things that we can say about the love to which Jesus calls people.
- It produces a strong socio-emotional bond between lover and loved that impacts how the lover behaves. A lot of ink has been spilled about what it means to “love” in the Bible, and I am not going to recapitulate that material here. Still, I think it is important to be clear about what I think “love” means in this context. Although love-related words could be used in a variety of ways in ancient literature, our usage here seems to evoke the highest ideals associated with love. It designates a deeply emotional bond that manifests itself in loyalty to God. That loyalty motivates people to do things that please God.
- It encompasses the entirety of the human person. Jesus calls his hearers to love God with various aspects of their being. Some of the terms that he uses to do so can be difficult to define, but the point seems to be that people are to love God in a way that encompasses all of who they are. In fact, both Mark and Luke add “mind” to the three elements contained in Deuteronomy, probably to ensure that no part of the human person is left out. (The “guts,” which were considered to be the seat of human emotion by many Jews, are not mentioned, but this is probably because ancient people thought it was the responsibility of the mind to control the emotions and because the emotive aspect is already covered by the terminology for “love.”)
- It is expressed at both the individual and the corporate level. Recent research into the cultural orientation of ancient Mediterranean civilizations has emphasized the importance of corporate identity for how people thought and lived. The references to parts of the human person indicate that love for God is something that is to be practiced by individuals, but there is good evidence that this may only be a secondary concern. For one thing, remember that the Shema is explicitly addressed to “Israel.” For another, all of the personal pronouns, as well as the words for the human parts, are singular. The point is that God’s people as a whole are to love God in an all-encompassing way.
The second command that Jesus issues (or, better, re-issues) is also presented in terms of love. This time, those who want to obey God and obtain eternal life are commanded to love their “neighbor” in the same way that they love themselves. This is not Jesus’ attempt at self-help pop-psychology; he (rightly) takes self-love as a given for the general population. Instead, Jesus calls people out of themselves (or at least out of their unhealthy obsessions with their own happiness). He calls them to engage those around them with affection and beneficence.
In a very real way, it is a restatement of what has become known as “the Golden Rule” (Matthew 7:12). People are to love others the same way that they love themselves, just as they are to treat others in the way that they would hope to be treated. So we don’t miss the connection, Matthew tells us that the entirety of the Law and prophets are found in these practices.
It is worth pointing out that Jesus (and, by extension, Matthew) is not the only person to read the Old Testament in this way. Paul also claims that to love is to fulfill the obligations of the Torah in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:8. Notice that, for Paul, the accent is on love for other people; he doesn’t even mention love for God. Certainly, Paul wanted people to love God (cf. e.g. 1 Corinthians 2:8-10), but his omission of the command in these texts should remind us that the command to love one’s neighbor is not simply a nice add-on to the command to love God. It, too, is a fundamental feature of obedience and perhaps even a prerequisite for entry into eternal life.
Reflecting on the commands to love God and love our neighbor, I am struck by how high Jesus’ standards really are. That is something that we are going to have to talk about in a later blog, especially since we live in a Christian culture that has sought to mass-market the gospel in order to get as many people saved as possible. For now, let’s just focus on what these commands mean for us today.
First, it seems to me that we have plenty enough to be getting on with just in the command to love God. Let’s be honest. Do you love God with every fiber of your being? Do you love God so deeply and so thoroughly that it saturates every thought, every emotion, every perception, and every action? I know that I do not, and I also know that I should. After all, Israel is not the only one to have benefited from God’s benevolent lordship. Jesus took upon himself the punishment that I so richly deserve. He sacrificed everything to make freedom from evil, reconciliation with God, and spiritual and moral transformation possible for me. The least I can do is love him (along with the Father and the Spirit) with everything that I am.
Second, it is not just individuals who have an obligation to love God in this way. Congregations, denominations, and the worldwide fellowship of Christians each must love God with everything that they are and everything that they have. Too often, these entities pursue other things. Like Hosea’s adulterous wife, they demonstrate by their actions that their affections are not with the God who suffered so much to bring them into His family.
And what about our neighbors? Too many individuals and congregations have forgotten what it means to be a good neighbor. Apathy, fear, and/or hostility have robbed them of the ability to sympathize with the plight of those around them and of the motivation to address real human needs.
Can such people and congregations be authentic representatives of Christ? I think not. Why? Because they have thrown overboard a fundamental piece of their identity. What does it mean to be a people who love God? It means that we love one another and that we love those around us.
Do some of the things that we have talked about today make you uncomfortable? Good. They should. We all fail at some level to love God and our neighbor as we ought. Realizing that we fail should motivate us to reconsider what is important to us and to redouble our efforts to live out the love that we claim to have.
Anyone who knows anything about the human condition, however, will understand immediately that we cannot get to where we want to go through sheer will of force. Indeed, that is the whole point of framing the conversation in terms of salvation; it assumes that we need God to act on our behalf. So, we need to think a little more about the relationship between the commands to love and the other concepts that are related to salvation in Scripture. We will begin that task in next week’s blog entry. In the meantime, share your own thoughts about what it means to love God and to love your neighbor in the “Comments” section below. And in case you missed part 1 of this article you can go here.