“The Greatest Mandate”
October 31, 2021
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “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.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; 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.’ 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. ***
Throughout the pandemic certain words have popped up in the public arena that have caught my attention. They are words that seem aimed to directly elicit responses in people. For example, “pivot” has been a popular word illustrating the need to quickly shift and go in a new direction. “Robust” was one of the early adjectives business forecasters used as they predicted the economy emerging from the battering of COVID-19. “Mandate” is the word that we have heard most often since early 2020. This word elicits strong responses from Americans. Perhaps like no other word in our vernacular, mandate raises our ire. Ask any school administrator or board member what it is like to face the range of responses to mask mandates for students and they will have stories to tell about how even the simplest mention of mandates set off explosions of emotion.
We are a wily people when it comes to mandates. Call them laws, requirements, or prohibitions. We like them when we feel they protect us from things we fear or back up our personal position. Or when they provide us justification to point a finger at someone else. Other times we disdain mandates altogether.
Some years ago in Wisconsin, the state legislature banned smoking in public places. Non-smokers were thrilled. They could go into eating and drinking establishments and not breathe smoke. Smokers, driven outside to light up were not enthusiastic. I do not recall them protesting about their personal right to choose being denied them. But today, polling on the mandate regarding this issue shows most Wisconsinites are happy with this mandate.
Personal right to choose is a phrase often uttered today in response to mandates, especially about mask wearing. I have been thinking about the tension that exists between personal rights and public responsibility. For the sake of ordering a society, we need laws and mandates. To uphold our individual freedoms, we need our systems of government to regard them, while at the same time safeguarding the wellbeing of our life together.
I am certain the debate about masks will continue for some time to come. And mandates, which have always been a part of human life will continue to be made, even over the shouts and protests of those certain their personal rights are being denied them.
Today’s reading from Mark 12 brings up the subject of mandates. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem 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 scribe, poses a question. Scribes, in Mark’s Gospel were always evaluating Jesus’ activities. They judged Jesus theologically, charging him with “blasphemy” because he forgave someone’s sins. They questioned his disciples’ hand-washing practices; they wanted to kill Jesus because they were afraid of his popularity (11:18, 32; 14:1), eventually leading to their working with Judas to capture Jesus. So, it is a scribe in the temple who poses the question: “Which commandment (mandate) is the first of all?”
There were over 600 hundred laws in the Bible and this scribe asks Jesus which was most important! Jesus, unwilling to give a single response takes and weaves all the commands 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, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.
Boom. Love God. Love your neighbor. On these two commandments hang all 600+ biblical mandates, everything that matters in this world. Period. The scribe’s face must have been quite the sight to see.
Throughout American history, the Ten Commandments have been a rudder for many churches and individual believers. Court battles have been waged over whether its constitutional to have public displays in government buildings, schools and public parks. Polling on the Ten Commandments show they still have traction with most Americans. But what if the title was changed from the “Ten Commandments” to the “Ten Mandates”? I wonder if public opinion would change. “Do not lie. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” These are mandates from God almighty. Would such mandates ever elicit the same emotional passions as mandates for mask wearing or taking a vaccine? I imagine church leaders would not want to stir up public outrage by promoting any such mandate in the climate of this time.
Yet, from a faith perspective, we live with mandates. I wonder if we tend to view “the law” as simply a bunch of rules. Or a moral code. Or a laundry list of dos and don’ts. To be sure, the law does convicts us of our sin — those things we do which harm others and relationship, as well as the good things we leave undone.
So, with that in mind, 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.
Let me take a moment here to point out what Jesus does not say in response to the scribes’ question. Remember, at this point in the story, Jesus’s crucifixion is just days away. Death is breathing down his neck, and he is rapidly running out of opportunities for delivering his closing message. But when asked what matters most in a 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 describes 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 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 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 we love based on our own affinities and preferences — not on Jesus’s all-inclusive commandment. Charitable actions are easy. But cultivating heart and soul? Preparing and pruning them to love? Becoming vulnerable in authentic ways to the world’s pain? Those things are hard and costly.
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 intimate.
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.”
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.
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, to getting through the pandemic and for facing our anxieties, 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 get your vaccine or booster shot, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
When you don your mask, remember: Love God, love your neighbor.
When you find yourself at odds with someone, remember: Love God, love your 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 poor.
May your hands be so blessed that everything you touch is a sacrament.
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, your love,
And may the blessing of the God who created you,
loves you, and sustains you, be with you now and always. -from “A Black Rock Prayer Book”
 The Freedom of a Christian, 1520: The Annotated Luther Study Edition by Timothy Wengert (Fortress Press, 2016).