These are the Greatest Commandment – 11,05,06

This was one of those weeks when the sermon evolved quite a bit after the title was already printed in the bulletins, so just to let you know there won’t be a whole lot of talk about economy.  Maybe when the lectionary cycles around in three years that sermon will be ready to go. 


Chances are each of us have some kind of central principle that we organize our lives around.  Or, if we don’t have one, we may be looking for one. 

I remember many late night conversations during high school and college, sitting around with friends discussing the meaning of life.  What is it all about?  Is it possible to sum up the meaning of life in a sentence or two?  We certainly gave it a good effort.


Businesses and other organizations often find it important to come up with a statement that summarizes their mission.  This gives a focus and a clear sense of purpose.


What we hold as centrally important effects our whole lives.  It affects how we relate to others, how we vote, what we think of ourselves, how we relate with God.    


In today’s passage, a scribe comes up to Jesus and essentially asks him what it’s all about.  “What is the greatest commandment?”


 The question is straightforward, and a common one for rabbis of the time to be discussing.  It was calculated that there were 613 commandments in the Torah, the first five books of our Bible, and determining which commandment was the greatest made for lively ongoing debate.


Jesus begins by responding in a way that many others of his time would have affirmed. 

His first statement is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4&5, a passage commonly known as the Shema.  “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.”  We tend to focus on the second part of this, the part about loving God with everything we have, but the first line here was and is of crucial importance for the Jewish people.  If there is anything equivalent to a Jewish confession of faith, it is this.  “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”  In a time when emperors were claiming the title of Lord and there were many, many different gods, it was an essential thing for Jews to claim ‘the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’  The unity of God and the oneness of God undergird the entire Jewish outlook on life.  It is still common practice for Jews to repeat this prayer morning and evening of every day.  In Hebrew it sounds like this:  Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad.

Perhaps the most important word for us is the first one, Shema, which can mean hear or listen.  Listening is difficult.  It’s hard to hear God when there are so many other things distracting us.  Listening requires us to quiet ourselves, to find some kind of stillness, and then openness to God’s moving within us.  If we can learn to hear, we will discover that God is a unity, and that we can be at rest within this unity.

After this opening line, the commandment goes that we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  In other words, we should love God with our whole being.  Just as God is a unity, so we are a unity, and all of these aspects of our life are connected and integrated.  We are most alive when we are loving God with our entire self.

            I note here that it includes we should love God with all our mind.  There is a feeling among some that faith and intellectual pursuits are at odds with each other.  That if you ask too many questions or if you think too hard about things or if you study the wrong subject that you will stray from God.  That thinking has no warrant here.  In fact, this passage invites us, even commands us, to love God with all our minds.  Think, explore, discover.  There is no place you can explore where God is not present.  There is no discipline in the university you can pursue that does not further reveal the wonder and awe of the Divine Spirit.  Love God with all your mind, and strength, and heart and soul. 

That’s what’s central, the greatest commandment.

Love is to encompass every aspect of our lives, even as we find ourselves encompassed in love.


Jesus could have stopped there.  After all, he seems to have answered the question.  But he goes on, this time citing from the 19th chapter of Leviticus, another book of the Torah.  “The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Somebody has observed that the key to being able to love your neighbor is to choose the right neighborhood to live in.  I believe it was Robert Frost who said “good fences make good neighbors.”  These statements no doubt have some truth in them.  But I think what Jesus had in mind was closer to something Dorothy Day said: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”  When the gospel of Luke records this episode, it describes someone then asking Jesus “and who is my neighbor?”  Jesus goes on to tell what we call the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Well, Samaritans were hated, dirty, half-breed outsiders, but in Jesus’ story the Samaritan ends up being the one who acts exemplary, like a neighbor.  So when Jesus is speaking of neighbor, he is essentially talking about the whole human family.    


There is an assumption here that we know how to love ourselves.  That since we know how to love ourselves we will in turn know how to love our neighbor.  Sometimes I wonder if this is true.  It often seems like the self is the hardest to love, the hardest to extend grace toward.  I am in the long process of learning to be gracious toward myself.  I hold high standards for myself and often get frustrated with small set-backs.  This is not a very peaceful way to live.  It’s hard to love ourselves because we know a lot about ourselves.  We know we are not always loveable.  Sometimes I really get on my nerves. 

A little over a year ago I was completing a pastoral internship at my home church in Bellefontaine.  It is a regular practice of the pastor to visit the juvenile detention center in town once a month and offer a Bible lesson and have some time to interact with the youth.  The pastor was out of town for one of the visitation times and I went in his place.  I spoke with the youth some about Jesus’ baptism and about how he heard the voice that he was God’s beloved child.  Knowing that he was God’s beloved child empowered him to share God’s unconditional love with others.  At one point one of the girls spoke up and said, “Yeah, it’s hard to love others when you don’t love yourself.”  Everyone else seemed to agree.  This girl who had had a difficult life knew that her healing needed to start within herself.  We must learn to be at peace with ourselves before we can make peace with others. 

 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, and, I would add, love yourself as God loves you, as a Beloved, forgiven, beautiful child.

            Jesus cites both of these passages from the Torah and then he says.  “There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Now, for you English majors out there, you may notice that that sentence has a problem.  I’m pretty sure I was taught that when speaking of something singular, such as commandment, I should use a singular modifier.  So what Jesus should be saying is that “there is no commandment greater than this”, this commandment is the greatest.  But instead he says, against good English, and against good Greek and Aramaic, “there is no commandment greater than these.”  OK, so dock Jesus a few percentage points on his grammar test. 

Jesus has been asked to name to greatest commandment, and instead of naming one, he has named two.  And then he says these are the greatest commandment.  In Jesus’ mind, these two separate commandments are inseparable and form a single commandment.  It’s a move that scholars believe would have been an innovation, placing these two commandments together to form a single thought.  What Jesus is teaching, in other words, is that it is impossible to separate loving God and loving others.  It is impossible to separate our personal relationship with God with our personal relationships with those around us.  We cannot separate spirituality from daily living, or faith from politics and social involvement.  When you work to pass just laws, this is a spiritual act.  When you pray and meditate on the graciousness of God, this is a political act.  When you make decisions about the kind of lifestyle you want to live and what types of businesses you want to support with your money, this is an act of worship.  When we gather to sing and acknowledge God as Lord of our lives, this is an act of pledging allegiance to a power other than the ruling powers of our country.  These have often been called the vertical and horizontal aspects of our life.  Our vertical connection to God and our horizontal connection with the world.  Two things that don’t normally fit together are found out to need to be together to form what is most important.  For Jesus, it simply is not possible to think of the two as separate.  They form a single commandment.  These are the greatest commandment.    

That’s what Jesus said. 

The scribe answers, “You are right, Teacher.”  Well, that’s a change of tone from all the arguing that’s been going on in Mark’s gospel.  For once someone actually seems to be agreeing with Jesus.  “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.’


Then Mark says this, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask him any question.  


At least temporarily, Jesus has silenced his opponents.



If we can listen and truly hear this teaching of Jesus, we are not far from the kingdom of God.  This is what it’s all about, Jesus’ mission statement for humanity.  God is not interested in a worship that detaches itself from this world, but one that engages it with all-encompassing love. 

            On this Peace Sunday, let’s resolve to be lovers of God, neighbor, and self this upcoming week.  Let’s take time for stillness so that we are able hear and listen to the God who is one.  As we use our minds and our bodies in our places of work and our homes, let us use them in a way that is directed toward God.  Let us love all those who we interact with.  Let our voting on Tuesday be a loving act of worship, as we participate in helping shape society.  Let us look for ways to love ourself as we take care of our bodies through exercise, and rest and as we are gracious and forgiving toward ourselves.

All of these are the greatest commandment.


RESPONDINGCall to Confession                                                                                                                                      Joel MillerOurs is a world of either/or, black and white, polarizations and dichotomies. We have separated love for God from love for neighbor. Let us confess this painful divorce and remember that what God has joined together no one should separate. Prayer of Confession (unison)Merciful God,      forgive us for disconnecting our love for you      from our love for our neighbor,      the vertical from the horizontal.How can we walk humbly with God      without doing justice and lovingkindness       toward our neighbor?Bring together the works of our hearts      and of our hands.Heal our division between soul and society,      spirituality and justice,      prayer and politics,      mystical and prophetic.Renew in us the vision of an

      undivided heaven and earth. Amen.