All We Need is Love
Jesus had been approached by the chief priests, scribes, and elders and was being questioned the group. “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” After that round of questioning, a group of Pharisees and Herodians came to Him and tried to trap Him with a series of questions relating to taxes. This is where we get the line, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Finally, a group of Sadducees approached Jesus to question Him about the resurrection. In His response, Jesus jabs at the Sadducees telling them flat out how wrong they were in the loaded question.
This line of questioning from the religious and political establishment of Israel occurred as Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem. After this line of questioning was finished, a lone scribe, perhaps who had been watching from a safe distance, approached Jesus and presented him with a final question, “Which commandment is first of all?” The scribe is asking, which commandment is the greatest. The question is focused on the Law. Of the 613 mitzvot, the 613 commandments in the Torah, which one is the greatest?
In typical Jesus fashion, Jesus does not answer the question in the manner it was presented to Him. When asked which commandment was first, as question seeking a singular response, Jesus gives the scribe more than he requested. “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus began His response with “Hear O Israel.” In Hebrew we read this as “Shema.” This Hebrew word and English phrase is an imperative. The first two words of the morning and evening prayers offered by Jews as a sign of obedience to G-d and confirmation of the covenant G-d established with Israel. This phrase is a quote from Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” and is considered to be one of the most treasured lines of scripture in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is stating that the first commandment is total obedience and devotion to G-d. “With all” implies there is no part of our being that we can separate from loving G-d.
Next, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19, one of my favorite parts of the Hebrew Bible. “ You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” Not vengeance, not a grudge but instead love. No other commandment is greater than these. More important than making the correct offering in the Temple, greater than saying the right prayer during worship, and of greater importance than public acts of piety is the total obedience to G-d, acknowledgment the covenant made between Creator and created, and love for the ones the Creator has made.
The intention behind the law was the order the life of Israel. Many of the 613 mitzvot, are practical in nature. At the same time, the law served to separate Israel from surrounding and occupying nations. One’s righteousness and holiness hinged upon their ability to uphold and follow all 613 mitzvot, following all of it.
In order to learn this path of righteousness and holiness a person would have been instructed by their parents and family. Religious leaders in the synagogues would have served as instructors and examples as well. To follow the 613 mitzvot one would have to learn what the laws were, then how to interpret the law, and then move to implementation. For those teaching and instructing, there would have been people before them who taught them - more Rabbis, grandparents, and neighbors. So those Jesus is speaking to would have know well what he was speaking of and the scribe confirms as much, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
The interesting part of the law is this: it was/is next to impossible to fulfill it. After all, we all fall short of the expectations placed before us by our Creator. We fall short of the Law time and time again. Even the part that Jesus states as the greatest, loving G-d with full submission and loving one another. What was intended to aid Israel in becoming righteous and holy before their Creator was next to impossible to fulfill. “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,” sounds easy enough until we realize that there are other god’s competing for our devotion - prestige, power, time, and money. On paper it sounds straightforward but in practice we discover how difficult this commandment is. And loving our neighbor, we all know how difficult that can be, especially when we look to Leviticus 19 and see just who are neighbors are - the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, the enslaved, and the poor.
All of us have had saints in our lives, those who have passed onto life eternal in Christ, who guided us in living out these two commandments. For me, two of those people are Carol Frank and Lori Shipley. These two women helped to see and experience the grace of G-d but they also helped me to learn to respond to that grace and share it with others.
The saints aid us in moving from what John Wesley referred to as justifying grace, when we accept the love and mercy extended to us by Christ, onto sanctifying grace, our own growing and maturing in faith, seeking to live just as Christ did. This is not a static, one and done movement according the Wesley. Instead, this is an ongoing movement as we encounter the love of G-d through Jesus Christ. So often though, we think that to move from justification to sanctification or holiness requires us to live out the greatest commandments of all before we do anything else. I’m not suggesting that we should not live those commandments out, after all Jesus tells us pointblank that we should, but because I know that I continually fall short of the glory of G-d I know it can be a difficult journey. After all, so many gods are competing for our attention that we, at times, do not live into the “Shema” proclaimed by Christ. And loving our neighbor sounds easy enough but loving our neighbor includes:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien”
“You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.”
“You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor.”
“You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.”
"You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Loving our neighbor in the way Jesus told the scribe to, tells us today, is a tall task. While I hold Mrs. Frank and Lori in saintly esteem, I know there were times when they too fell short of the greatest of all the commandments. The first step though, to becoming a saint is not holiness, it is not loving “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” or loving your neighbor. The first step in the sanctification John Wesley wrote and preached about is trusting that through the incarnation, G-d donning human flesh and dwelling among us in Christ, G-d became our neighbor and loved us as himself to the fullest the law demanded. When the greatest of the commandments seems to be more than we can bear, we have Jesus who guides us by showing us first how to love one another. Repeatedly we see in Christ’s ministry how to love our neighbors.
With a woman at a well.
With a woman who had been hemorrhaging blood for 12 years.
With a hungry crowd of people.
With his closest friends, around a table, sharing bread and wine together.
On the cross.
The saints of the past and us today have flaws. They, we, fell short of what Christ describes as the greatest of the things we are supposed to do. But in Christ loving us as himself, the saints and each of us are made righteous. What once was thought to separate us from the love of G-d is no more and Christ invites us to join him and the saints around His table. Clothed in the righteousness of Christ through our Baptism into His life, death, and resurrection, and not our own self-righteousness, we are declared holy. The greatest commandments, loving “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and loving your neighbor is a little less daunting knowing that before we ever attempt to fulfill it, Christ first loved us. Christ fulfilled it for us.