The Greatest Commandments  

Ppr 25                                                                        Oct. 25, 2020

Matthew 22:34-40; Deut 6:4-5, Lev 19:18, 33-34


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the 10 Commandments. Today, we will look at what Jesus called the greatest commandments. He wasn’t referring to the greatest of the 10 commandments. Rather, he was referring to the greatest of the 613 commandments found in the Hebrew scripture. Many Christians think that Jesus brilliantly offered his own succinct summary of the most important points of the commandments. But as we have heard from the scripture readings today, Jesus was simply quoting three of them. He wasn’t making them up—they were and still are at the heart of the Jewish faith as well as the Christian faith.

The first, and the most important, was a quote from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, called the Shema’ in Hebrew. It is still recited twice daily by observant Jews: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

The word heart in the Hebrew scripture means intellect, will and conscience. (It is the kidneys in the Hebrew scripture that are the seat of the emotions, temperament and wisdom.) So to love God with all of our heart in Hebrew means to align our will with God’s; to think as God would think. How in the world can we know God’s will or how God would think? If we can soften our own ego’s certainty and genuinely invite the opinions and thoughts of those with whom we disagree, we will be aligning our will with God’s. If we can realize that we can only see a small part of the picture—of God’s universal truth, then we will be making space for thoughts that are far beyond our own. Then, we will be loving God with all of our heart.

The word soul in Hebrew means one’s psyche, spirit or life force. So to love God with all of our soul means to align our psyche, our energy, our life-force with God’s. How do we do this? If we can identify things that suck the life-energy out of us and limit those things in our lives, we will make more space for the greening force, what Hildegard of Bingen called viriditas, the joie de vivre of God. Then, we will be loving God with all of our soul.

To love God with all of our might implies bodily response and action. If we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly, we will be loving God with all of our might.

Jesus then quoted from the Hebrew scripture a second commandment that helps us live out this first commandment to love God. Leviticus 19:18 reads, “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” A poem of William Blake included these words,

I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see;

I sought my God, but my God eluded me;

I sought my neighbour, and I found all three.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked who our neighbour is and he told them the story of the Good Samaritan. This story tells us that our neighbour could be someone different than us in both religion and ethnicity. Our neighbour could even be our enemy. By telling this story, Jesus actually added a third commandment which is found at the end of Leviticus 19, and reads, “you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were once aliens in the land of Egypt.”

These commandments, which sum up the centrality of the Christian gospel are actually Jewish commandments which sum up the centrality of the Jewish faith. Christians stand in good stead with our Jewish ancestors of the faith.

But something was lost along the way in our Christian teachings. We have largely forgotten the connection in Leviticus and in Jesus’ teaching of loving our neighbour with loving the alien or stranger in our country. Our Christian history is filled with violence directed against aliens of other faiths. To reclaim the original context of Jesus’ teaching, we are told that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbour—either someone like us or a recent immigrant or refugee—as ourselves. In other words, the test of being a faithful Christian is the extent to which our love includes those who differ from us in religion, ethnicity, culture or language. It could also mean our next-door neighbour who irks us to no end.

Someone once said that every church should have an 11-foot pole that would help us deal with all the neighbours we won’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

Lastly, what does it mean to love our neighbour and stranger as ourselves? Some think that it means we are to love others with the same amount of love we have for ourselves. But Richard Rohr suggests something a little different. We are to love others and ourselves from the same Source of Love, who is God. How we are able to love others and ourselves depends upon how we are able to receive God’s love.

Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Sometimes the neighbour we are given to love is our own wounded self.” I would add that sometimes our own wounded self seems more like an alien or a stranger that can be difficult to love.

George Washington Carver, a Black scientist in the late 1800s and early 1900s stressed that “how far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because [by the end of your] life you will have been all of these.”

This quote helps me better understand the various places we all are with the COVID restrictions. We are not all in this together. The income of many has not been affected while the income of some has actually risen and yet others have lost jobs and are not able to find other work. Some are not as vulnerable to the virus while others fear for their lives. Some are appreciating the quieter, slower pace while others are declining in physical and mental health because of enforced isolation. Because we are not in the same place, we are making different decisions and have different risk tolerances.

It is difficult not to judge others for their decisions, especially when their maskless choices seem to result in greater restrictions placed on all of us. But let’s try to rise above our judgement and focus simply on what our faithful responses should be in light of the second commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves. But if we separate the second commandment from the first, the second commandment will be impossible. The degree to which we can receive God’s forgiving love is the degree to which we can love both ourselves and our neighbours no matter how strange and unlovable we might think we are.