“You will have died and resurrected three times and still be trying to figure out [how many federal criminal laws exist today],” said Ronald Gainer, a retired (U.S.) Justice Department official (The Wall Street Journal, 2011. In the first century Jews could and did count Torah laws (Genesis–Deuteronomy): 615 commandments—365 “You shall not’s” and 248 “You shall’s”. A pittance compared to the U.S., but still formidable. And a daunting challenge to determine the most important one.
Should I care? Since God created the heavens and earth and all that’s in them (Revelation 10:6), and will hold each of us personally accountable regarding how we have lived as his creatures (Romans 14:10b-12), we’d better. Knowing God’s highest law, then, isn’t academic, but life and death.
It’s Tuesday before Jesus’ Friday crucifixion. Conflict between Jesus and Jewish authorities publicly is boiling. A failed onslaught in the temple courtyard from authorities trying to prove Jesus a fraud has quieted (11:27-12:27). Now a law-teacher, impressed at Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, asks, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions (Mark 12:28-34).
Jesus answers immediately. No research hours at the seminary library. No search time at Google. “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus takes his answer from Deuteronomy 6:4,5. Known as the Shema (sha-ma), from the Hebrew for “hear”, this was the signal creed of Israel’s faith recited by devoted Jews every morning and evening. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
When I think of “love” I think of Lois—53 years of married love. I think of my three adult children —and reminisce about raising-experiences. And I think of my 8 grandchildren—the joy they bring, the treasures they are. “Love” is affectionate, emotional. I get teary-eyed with wonder. “Love” is also protective, strong. I’d lay down my life for them.
When I try to grasp what Jesus means by “love the Lord your God”, I page back to Deuteronomy since Jesus answered from there. The book records the renewal of the Sinai Covenant with the second generation that came out of Egypt. I read what P.C. Craigie wrote about ancient covenants: “A number of scholars have argued convincingly that there is a relationship in form between the Hebrew covenant and the ancient Near Eastern vassal treaty . . . The Hebrews adapted the treaty form for their own use in order to express the nature of their relationship to God” (The New International Commentary, The Book of Deuteronomy). I read William L. Moran’s insightful statement” “‘Love’ in ancient Near Eastern political covenants means allegiance to a sovereign, the opposite of which is treason” (“The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy”).
And I remember learning how, after conquering another tribe or nation, a Near Eastern king offered them a treaty. He would provide them with all the benefits of his reign, if they would “love” him—that is, if they would pledge their allegiance to him.
It’s then I begin to understand God’s highest commandment. His law declares, “Love me with all your being—heart, soul, mind and strength.” That love is emotional. How could it not be? But at its core it’s allegiance to the Lord our God who has conquered me and pledged to provide me all the benefits of his reign. And that allegiance isn’t like a Nazi swearing devotion to his fuehrer; it’s a sinner pledging devotion to the God who first loved him.
Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus takes this answer from Leviticus 19:18–“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” No self-justifying question here as in Luke 10 (“Who is my neighbor?”) The law-teacher is impressed. “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
The answer reveals the ceremonial religion opposed by this connected-commandment. To love God and to love my neighbor are more important than water baptism or the Lord’s Supper, just as they were more important than Israel’s burnt offerings and sacrifices. To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength is to love him with all our being.
And to love my neighbor as myself is to want the same good for my neighbor I want for me. Is my neighbor poor? I should share. Is my neighbor ill? I should bring chicken soup. Is my neighbor lonely? I should bring myself. Wanting the same good for my neighbor as I do for me implies helping him have it.
A young couple recently moved in next door. Lois met them. I’m ashamed to say I don’t even know their names. But God’s most important two-part law is love them!
“Lord it is my chief complaint that my love is cold and faint;
Yet I love Thee and adore; O for grace to love Thee more”
(William Cowper, 1773-1800).
“Lord, most days I don’t even think about my neighbors:
Yet I want to obey your highest law; O for grace to love the people next door.”
(Allan Babcock, 1943–)