Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 22:34-40

The Greatest Commandment

     34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

     37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This passage strikes me as one of the most important stories in all of the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching. After all, if you’re in the presence of God in human form, finding out which of his many commandments he regards as the most important is a question that needs to be asked.

Several of our recent Reflections have been based on passages from the Gospel of Matthew that tell us about the final days of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In those final days, the conflict between Jesus and the religious leadership intensified. The Jewish religious leaders seem to have been gotten steadily more threatened by Jesus, and more angry and frustrated by their inability to get rid of him. They tried tricking Jesus by asking him  loaded questions. It seems that they hoped to trick Jesus into saying something that would get him arrested by the Romans or make him unpopular with the people.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t work.

Now in today’s reading, a leader of the Pharisees asks Jesus’ opinion about the greatest of the commandments. Jesus answers by quoting a passage from Deuteronomy commanding us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind. He then follows that with a quote from Leviticus commanding us to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Whenever we’re thinking about a passage from the New Testament that includes the word “love,” it’s important to stop and remind ourselves that the Greek term translated as “love” doesn’t mean the warm and affectionate feelings we think of when we hear the word. So these ‘greatest commandments’ don’t command us to have warm and affectionate feelings toward God or toward our neighbor. That’s not to say we shouldn’t have great affection for God. After all, he’s demonstrated great love for us by going to the cross in the form of Jesus, so that would seem to warrant quite a bit of genuine affection in return. And Jesus seems to assume we will experience that kind of affection for God, because he invites us to call on God as “Abba,” which is an Aramaic equivalent of “Papa.”

But as you might remember, the Greek term translated as “love” here – the word is agape – really has more to do with commitment than with affection. Agape is a commitment to do whatever you can to advance the interests of another. So this commandment tells us to make advancing God’s interests the most important thing in our lives. That’s what loving God with heart, soul and mind means – basically devoting everything in our lives to advancing the interests of God.

You can’t command someone to feel a certain way, because we don’t have much control over our feelings. But we do have control over our actions, our words and even to some degree over our thoughts. So even if a person for some odd reason is without affection toward God, it’s still entirely possible for that person to make advancing God’s interests the central purpose of their life. From studying the New Testament, it seems that the heart of advancing God’s interests – the heart of a life of real discipleship – is glorifying him by making disciples and meeting human need.

The second commandment that Jesus says is ‘like the first’ – that we love others as much as we love ourselves – that also directs us to make the welfare and the interests of other people our own responsibility. We’re commanded to work just as hard to advance the interests of others as we work to advance our own interests.

By declaring that the love of neighbor is like the love of God, and that all the other commandments “hang on these two,” it seems to me that Jesus welds together our responsibilities to God and other people. From our perspective as his followers, we don’t get to choose which one we obey. They are ‘alike’ – of the same authority.

I often remember a quote from the great Roman Catholic advocate for the poor Dorothy Day, and you might remember me including it in sermons or Reflections before. She said, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.” To me, that’s a scary thought. But if we take seriously what Jesus said here about the second of these two commandments being “like the first,” she’s probably right.

Some parts of the church have traditionally focused on glorifying God with heartfelt worship and on evangelizing so people will “get saved.” Other parts of the church have focused on helping the poor and the needy, but have been lukewarm about worship and evangelism. But when you read what Jesus says in this passage, he makes it pretty clear that a life of true discipleship includes both a heartfelt commitment to glorifying God and bringing his kingdom to fulfillment and also a commitment to doing all we can to bless and serve others in his name.

Let’s pray. Lord, we pray that by the power of your Holy Spirit, you will move our hearts both to a deep affection for you as a loving parent who has made great sacrifices for us, and also to a powerful commitment to make advancing your interests the goal of our lives. And let our love for others around us demonstrate our love for you. Amen.

Grace and Peace,