When the Pharisees ask Jesus “which commandment is the greatest,” they are only the latest of the Jewish leaders hoping to entrap Jesus in some unanswerable theological or legal trap. In today’s test, here in Jerusalem during the last week of his life, he faces the final of three consecutive, hostile challenges involving, first taxes, then the resurrection, and now, the law. Like the priests and Sadducees before them, these Pharisees hope that, no matter how Jesus answered the question, he would offend some school of Jewish teaching, thus further igniting Temple leadership against him.
After all, there were some 613 Jewish laws; surely, they thought, they could trip-up this rebel-rouser. Jewish scholars, trained and tested over a lifetime, had debated this (and other) questions for centuries.
Hopes were high that Jesus would find their question perplexing, and would thus ignite some condemnable offense.
But, Jesus doesn’t hesitate. He first quotes Deut. 6:5, a part of the Shema (the oral creed at the very heart of Judaism:) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The Shema was so central to Jewish practice that it opened every synagogue service, and in fact would have been worn by pious Jews on their heads and wrists in the tiny leather boxes called phylacteries. At home, the Shema hung on their doors and was repeated in both morning and evening prayers, every day of the year. The Shema is the most fundamental and universal statement of Jewish monotheism, and significantly, this one verse, Deut. 6:5, effectively summarizes the first four commandments, encapsulating with how we are to relate to God.
But then Jesus adds a second law, “like unto it” – that is, one of equal importance to the crucial Shema verse, this time from Leviticus (the OT Book of the Law): “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” With this inclusion, Jesus sets - on an equal plane - what is essentially a summary of the last four commandments, and thereby links, inseparably, one’s love and obedience to God with one’s loving behavior and treatment of others. Matthew quotes this one OT verse more than any other, expounding on Leviticus 19:18 to include not only Jews, but all “neighbors.” With these two verses, Jesus fuses religious practice with ethical behavior.
And the Pharisees fall silent; they can make no rebuttal. Rather, in an unusual move, Jesus then asks his own question of the Pharisees … not to assert victory in some theological debate, but to elicit from them what the Scriptures themselves teach - not about the law, or resurrection or taxes – but about the Messiah. After all, Jesus understands that this is the real question at the heart of all the tests Jesus faced from the Jewish hierarchy. “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” he asks. And using the words of King David’s Messianic Psalm 110 (the most quoted OT “chapter” in the NT) Jesus points out that the Messiah, who was prophesized to be David’s son, must somehow also be (according to David’s own words) David’s superior – King David’s Lord.
Jesus’ riddle silences these learned men of the law, but the reason for his questions was not to humiliate them, but to perhaps cause them to ponder anew who the Messiah might actually be, and thus perhaps lead them to recognize who he really is. Might it be that the Messiah (who is the son of King David) is also … David’s Lord God… proclaimed by God as His Son at Jesus’ baptism and at his Transfiguration?
And if, like David, “by the Spirit,” they come to recognize Jesus as this Messiah, they might also come to recognize that he is the very embodiment of the double command that is their (and our) greatest command.
Jesus’ entire ministry presents and incarnates this double command; his Sermon on the Mount, his healings and parables, his interactions with the powerful and the disenfranchised - all consistently reveal the inseparable union of … loving God by loving one’s neighbor, and loving one’s neighbor because we love God. Finally, in the ultimate expression of this double command, Jesus yields up his very life – his heart, soul and mind – on the hard wood of the cross, in self-sacrificing love of his neighbor… of us … in loving obedience to God the Father.
Like the very shape of the cross on which Jesus would himself hang… Christ’s crucifixion connects the vertical command to love God, expressed in the first four commandments … with the horizontal command to love others, expressed in the last four commandments. Jesus is at the center of it all; He is the living, saving fulfillment of the commandments. His self-sacrifice bleeds the liquid, spreading cost of Love … across all time and every circumstance.
…What a vast Gospel command we have before us today! Love of God lived out by loving our neighbors. OT laws embodied in the NT Lord; all summarized – and fulfilled – in the person – the actions of none other than Jesus, the Christ! Beloved, this… THIS - is our double-command? As we say at the opening of our Rite I service, at the recitation of the double-command,” Lord, have mercy!” How can any of us actually Love as the Lord Jesus loved?
Interestingly, biblical love is not necessarily an emotional feeling for our neighbor (though that can surely be part of our response), but rather this love is an action of determined commitment. It is a choice of behavior and action. We need look no further than Jesus’ vow to His Father: “not my will but your will be done.” This is no warm, fussy sentimental love. We are called to do the action of love. Real love is a choice and a decision, not a feeling.
That means we are to love not just the gentle and kind folks around us, but foreign strangers, the local vagrant, and ultimately, perhaps most uncomfortably, the difficult people we must deal with every day – the irritable, the complainer, the cynic, the criticizer, the haughty, the whiner, the victim-minded, the short-tempered, the erratic. Loving the neighbors who are more often than not, just like us, is a decision – lived out in loving action.
But how? Trying to love such a neighbor through gritted teeth will always fail. As Jesus himself said to the rich man: “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matt. 19:26.) So, are we commanded to do what we cannot do?
…Did you notice that while Christ’s double-command summarizes the first four and the last four of the ten commandments… there is no distillation of the unique – and longest - fifth commandment? There is no abbreviation of the Sabbath command, the one that stands at the living center of all commandments. Why is that do you suppose? Are we to disregard the fulcrum in the law? Or is there something here that turns the corner between the vertical love of God and the horizontal love of our neighbor?
The Sabbath command is, interestingly, not a command for physical action, but of cessation from rushing, human activity, to create time and space for intentional, vigorous, adoring worship of God. We are to stop long enough to thank and praise our Lord, humbly turning our wondering eyes to our source, our creator, our glorious GOD.
And something happens to us when we dedicate time to God; He tells us He has blessed His Sabbath time. In the Sabbath, something happens at the center of our beings, at the intersection uniting love of God and love of neighbor. This is the spot where Jesus’ raw and whipped back rubs hardest against the tearing splinters of the cross. In time, or perhaps in a moment, we can see the unspeakable, chastening, Love-in-action Jesus lived – and died - for us, his irascible, selfish, haughty, insular, unworthy neighbors. And we are overwhelmed to overflowing by such Love so undeservedly given by Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah.
And there – just there - the curtain of our tiny human temples tears open – from top to bottom, and we look … from his silent, haunted, pain-racked eyes fixed upward (in obedience to God) … down to his calloused, bloodied feet… feet that walked the stony path from his blessed baptism to His cursed crucifixion. And we see his trembling arms, spread so wide-open that every sin is absolutely removed - as far as the East is from the West … and we realize these are the love-in-action arms of Almighty God’s own expansive, grace-filled, merciful embrace.
And all of a sudden, in the Sabbath quiet of adoration and humble thanks, Love pours out ... from Jesus’ cross … into and right over and through us … from God the Father, through Christ the Saving Son, by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit … and we finally see the double command, not as an impossible law to be obeyed with strong-armed determination, but as a Gift to be given … and given away… from the East all the way to the West - in thanks and praise of the God who gave His own life for us. Only, Lord, through your incredible love of us, are we able to love our neighbor, as our action to love and adore you!
Lord have mercy upon us, and thanks be to God.