October 29, 2023
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. ***
Imagine that you’ve just started a new diet, and you ask your partner to support you in your efforts by agreeing to cook healthy meals and doing something active after supper instead of watching TV. One evening when you are discussing what you should eat for dinner, you suggest ordering in. Your partner replies, “I thought you were on a diet. No eating out!”
Instead of saying thank you for the reminder of your goals, you feel anger welling up inside of you. How dare you be told what you can and cannot eat!
When people feel their choices are restricted, or that others are telling them what to do, they sometime react negatively or rebel and do the opposite.
There is a term for this: psychological reactance. Dr. Tom Schweinberg, a German neuropsychologist reports it is no uncommon for people resist when they are told they must do something. “And so, when you are told you have to do something that you don’t want to do, you are less likely to do it because you’re trying to reestablish the freedom that’s being limited.”[i]
In this passage from Matthew 22 Jesus gives his listeners a mandate. Just days before his arrest, he has been teaching and engaging with religious leaders who question his authority. After multiple debates, one of these leaders, a Pharisee, poses a question.
Pharisees were always evaluating Jesus’ activities. They judged him, questioned his practices and they wanted to kill him for fear of his popularity.
So, it is a Pharisee, who also is a lawyer, poses the question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” His intent seems genuine. He wasn’t setting a trap like the others who had questioned Jesus earlier.
In response, Jesus takes the over 600 hundred commands in the Bible and weaves them into a single Great Commandment. Without hesitation, he said: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Surely some in the crowd responded with psychological reactance.
Throughout American history, the Ten Commandments have been a rudder for many churches and individual believers. Yet, for some they are a source of psychological reactance. Court battles have been waged over whether its constitutional to have public displays in government buildings, schools and public parks.
Curiously, the Ten Commandments show they still have traction with most Americans. More than 90 percent of Americans agree that the commandments regarding murder, stealing and lying remain fundamental standards of societal behavior. Others commands with majority support include those about not coveting, not committing adultery and honoring parents. The lowest level of support for any commandment: keeping the Sabbath holy.[ii]
As people of faith, we live with mandates, “laws” which are not simply moral code or a laundry list of dos and don’ts. To be sure, the law does convicts us of our sin — the sins we commit which harm others and relationship, as well as sins of omission which are good, we leave undone. Mandate convict and connect.
Jesus tells the religious leaders looking to bring charges against him that all the laws can be distilled into a single statement. Love God — Love neighbor. Jesus connects our relationships with God and each other into one by saying you cannot really be in right relationship with God without being in right relationship with your neighbor. In short, you cannot love God unless you love your neighbor.
So, just days before the crucifixion when asked what matters most in the life of faith, Jesus does not say, “Believe the right things.” He does not say, “Maintain personal and doctrinal purity.” He does not say, “Worship like this or attend a church like that.” He does not even say, “Read your Bible,” or “Pray every day.” He says, “Love.” That’s it. All of Christianity distilled down to its essence so that maybe we will pause long enough to hear it. Love. Love God and love your neighbor.
Love. It is a mandate! And to follow mandates involves discipline, effort and giving up some of yourself. Following such a mandate means you do not get to put your individual preference or your tight grip on personal freedom into the mix.
How Jesus defines love is quite different from the way we do. We talk and think about love as if we have little power or agency in its presence. Jesus does not say, “I sure hope love happens to you.” He says, “Love is the greatest and first commandment.” Meaning, it is not a matter of personal affinity, feeling, or preference. It is not a matter of lucky accident. It is a matter of obedience to the one we call “Lord.”
We fail to obey and practice the greatest commandment because such love of God and neighbor requires trust and instead, we are conditioned to be suspicious. The love Jesus commands spills over margins and boundaries, while we feel safer and holier policing our borders. Love takes time, effort, and discipline, and leaves no room to be entrenched in our own aims or stuck on personal desires.
What would it cost us to take seriously this mandate, Jesus’s version of all the laws summed up into love of God and love of neighbor? What would it take to pivot in order to practice and cultivate a depth of empathy and compassion for humanity? To train ourselves into a hunger for justice and love of all our neighbors so fierce and so urgent that we rearrange, even change our attitudes and actions in order to pursue it.
Most of the time — we choose to be safe instead of loving. We want to keep our circle small and manageable. We choose the people or more broadly the type of people we love based on our own affinities and preferences — not on Jesus’s all-inclusive commandment.
I do not think it is a coincidence or a mistake that Jesus inextricably links love of God with love of neighbor. Each reinforces, reinterprets, and revives the other. We cannot love God in a way that does not touch the dirt and depth of this world. Our love is meant to be robust and muscular, hands-on, and transforming for others.
Martin Luther wrote: “Christian(s) …do not live in themselves, but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love. Through faith they are caught up beyond themselves into God; likewise, through love they fall down beneath themselves into the neighbor — remaining nevertheless always in God and God’s love.” [iii]
We cannot love ourselves or our neighbors in any meaningful, sustainable way if that love is not sourced and replenished in and from an abiding love of God.
The love Jesus commands is not passive. It is not something that occurs to us without our control or will. Such love is something we do.
So, what does it look like? Simple. It looks like Jesus. We love when we follow in the footsteps of the one who stood in the presence of his accusers and enemies and declared love the be-all and end-all. Imagine what that love would look like in the places of enormous strife, terror, loss and sadness this past week?
This simply stated mandate — love God and love neighbor is a truth that has sounded forth for millennia — through pandemics, wars, economic ruin, suffering, and many a dark winter. It has guided humankind to shine a bright light in the worst of times toward justice, peace, and healing.
What could be more relevant to the living of these days, facing our anxieties and this perilous world, than the greatest commandment? Sometimes the simplest thing is the most needed thing. So dear readers, I pray you have a week brimming with love for God and neighbor, so that:
When you listen to the news, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
When you find yourself at odds with someone, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
When you want to resist doing the right thing for the sake of another, remember: Love God, love neighbor.
Whatever you do, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful for anything but love.
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone.
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the suffering and despairing.
May your hands be so blessed that everything you touch is holy.
Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love.
May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you.
And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire,
that your love,
And may the blessing of the God who created you,
loves you, and sustains you, be with you now and always.
-based on a blessing from “A Black Rock Prayer Book.”
[i] Psychology of Mandates: People tend to resist when told to do something” Liz Bonis & Merby Curtis, WKRC, Sept 28, 2021.
[ii] Deseret News online poll March 2018 by YouGov and Y2 Analytics surveying 1,000 Americans.
[iii] The Freedom of a Christian, 1520: The Annotated Luther Study Edition by Timothy Wengert (Fortress Press, 2016).