The first and greatest.

greatestcommandmentDISCLAIMER: In this post, as is often my habit, I will use “men, etc.” as a generic term for humanity rather than a term specifically related to the chromosomal make-up of any one particular sex.

Many, maybe even most, of us are familiar with Jesus and his interaction with the scribes when they asked Him what was the greatest commandment. Jesus responded with two. The story can be found in Matthew 22:34-40 and also in Mark 4:28-31. There are currently many people who base the entirety of their theological understanding centered on these verses. We have tended to treat this as something new and revolutionary that Jesus commanded of us, rather than understand that in fact what Jesus was doing was doing was answering properly that the first and greatest commandment is indeed to love the Lord your God with all you heart, mind, and soul, (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 thank you Shema) but then does something rather interesting by attaching the love of neighbor to it (Leviticus 19:18; Thank you, Levitical holiness code). Some of us who read the commands of Jesus here don’t even realize that these were not a new command from Christ, but rather Him reaffirming the Shema as the first and greatest commandment and then attaching love of neighbor as a natural and logical outgrowth of love of God. I want to break down these two commands a bit more though as I think that some of us have gotten them very wrong in our understanding.

I think that the first issue that we have is with Love. There is a language component here that is at play. The verb used in these passages for love is not the cotton candy sweet sort of love, nor is it a love expressed in friendship or brotherhood, rather it is love (agapao the verb form of agape) that is expressed in committed devotion, directed by our will, and is in fact commanded by Christ as our duty. A choice. A decision. Not a feeling. This sort of love is based in duty, in the willingness to sacrifice all, save for truth, for another. This is the same love we find in the oft quoted John 3:16. This is the love revealed in Jesus Christ, but also spoken of in Deuteronomy as a command.  We need to understand that this love, as it is the love of divine origin, must also contain the and reflect the other attributes of God as expressed through out scripture. If we love God without righteousness, holiness, etc, we may be expressing an affection for God, but we are not expressing the love outlined in Jesus’ reminder of these two OT commands.

One of the trends I have noticed as well is the use of these two commands as reason to ignore and discount all other commands in favor of this one, the contention being that love is the law (Aleister Crowley would be proud of this thought). This, I think, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what has been said. In Matthew we read that all the law and prophets hang from the commands and in Mark we read that no command is greater. Neither of these statements release us from the moral obligations of holy living, nor do they release us from needing a proper understanding of the faith to move forward in our own life. They certainly do not release us from the OT and taking it seriously. From Matthew’s account we have the OT hangs from these things. That is quite the difference from don’t matter. Adam Clarke in his commentary puts it this way:

“On these two – hang all the law and the prophets – They are like the first and last links of a chain, all the intermediate ones depend on them. True religion begins and ends in love to God and man. These are the two grand links that unite God to man, man to his fellows, and men again to God.

Love is the fulfilling of the law, says St. Paul, Romans 13:10; for he who has the love of God in him delights to obey the Divine precepts, and to do all manner of kindness to men for God’s sake.”

Notice that even when referencing Paul’s statement that love is fulfilling the law, Clarke adds that those who have shown the proper love toward God delight in obeying the word of God. Love doesn’t negate our moral obligations to live a holy life, rather love is the reason that we live a holy life to begin with. Love is the fulfilling of the law because those who love God in the proper manner obey Him. Love means that we serve and do all manner of kindness to men for God’s sake, but it does not mean that we endorse the behavior of all manner of men for god’s sake.

By referring to the first and greatest commandment,and then attaching the love of neighbor presented to us in Leviticus, Jesus points us back to the law. Before you ask if I eat bacon, no, not the the ceremonial/ritual acts of the law used to reconcile man to God, no, not to dietary restrictions on the Jews, no not about clean and unclean, but about the morality. About living a holy life that is pleasing and acceptable to God. There are an abundance of examples in the NT about what that means and looks like, but if we ignore the abundance of examples in the OT that demonstrate the same things, then we have an incomplete understanding of faith. If we are too quick to jump and say that we are only following the words of Jesus, then we are cutting ourselves off from large portions of the OT that Jesus spoke about that we will have no proper understanding of. If we dismiss that OT as being little more than cultural understanding meant only for the Jews, then how long before we do the same to even those red letter words that Jesus spoke mostly to Jews…how long before the two great commands become little more than something culturally relevant to only those of the time?

The two commands that Jesus gave are also separated for a reason. The first and greatest is love (properly understood) of God. That is our primary command in both the old and new testament. Let’s face it, without proper love and devotion to God, we can not love people properly either. We have often done a wonderful job of serving our neighbors, of feeding and clothing those in need, etc. but when we do so, we must never lose sight of the first and greatest commandment which is to love God. There is a trend going about talking about how when we love our neighbors we love God but not only is that faulty theologically it is also a blatant violation of the first and greatest commandment. The second command is what comes naturally and logically from the first, it does not replace it.

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