When asked “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus’s famous response isn’t just about loving God and neighbor. It says our love depends on it.
When Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment, he doesn’t skip a beat.
But how he responds to this question is truly remarkable.
There’s nothing remarkable in the concept or its theological foundation. The first commandment was certainly the most obvious and traditional choice. The greatest commandment? Love God. Check.
Nor is it terribly remarkable that he combines that statement with the love command from Leviticus.
What’s remarkable is how he succinctly contextualizes the statement for the hearer.
He begins with prayer.
Jesus doesn’t only begin with the first commandment, he starts with how everyone was taught the commandment. Not as part of a list of 10. But in the words of the central prayer of the people: the Sh’ma.
Jesus isn’t just making a simple theological statement, then. He doesn’t use the words of scripture, but prayer. He’s using the tools of conviction which fundamentally connect the generations. It would be like a priest responding to the question what should Christians do in the world with
Forgive us our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.
This is our prayer, our central prayer.
It teaches and connects. It isn’t just about the learning and acknowledging of the metaphysical or necessary truth. It’s also the relationship we have to our faith. It cuts straight to the point. It responds to that question, what is the greatest commandment with
That prayer you pray every day isn’t just a prayer. It’s the central thesis.
And he communicates to the asker the inverse
That intellectual answer you have in your brain about the nature of God? That junk is in our very prayers, not just our heads!
Then Jesus turns to the active, relational truth. Love your neighbor as yourself. This he takes from Leviticus 19 and pairs it with a first, greatest.
The second greatest commandment
Jesus is asked for one answer and he gives two. We’re all familiar with this kind of problem. We all do this when we don’t think one is enough or we can’t separate the two of them. We say “it’s both.”
And Jesus has just been answering the question in a relational way, speaking not only to an intellectual belief in God’s existence, but in the prayer the faithful use everyday. So then he pairs with it the manifestation of connection. The reality of what loving God actually looks like.
The problem is that we read these two statements shoved together as implying different things. The first, paraphrased, is
Love God with everything you’ve got.
The second is
Love your neighbor as yourself.
And we hear these two separately because they evoke different ideas. One trains all our attention on God and the other gives us a comparison. We intellectualize it because we need to measure our love for self against our love of neighbor and see if they are all in balance.
But when we do this, we’re trampling past the way Jesus connects these two.
“And the second is like it”.
To put it in more explicit words,
Compare what I’m about to say to what I just said. It will be like it.
So the first is love God with everything.
How is loving your neighbor as yourself like it?
Love your neighbor with everything, too. Love your neighbor with the same devotion to self-preservation and selfish ambition. Train all of your focus on your neighbor that they may know the fullness of your love.
I used to take this call to love my neighbor as myself as a second commandment, but I don’t anymore. Jesus implies it’s a second, separate command, but I don’t think that’s its ultimate defining characteristic. That was a linguistic device to direct those testing him to go beyond themselves.
What I hear, given the likeness and the need Jesus had to connect and virtually share the equal status as “Greatest Commandment” is their partnership. Because they ultimately inform each other. As God is love, our love for God and our neighbors is the very substance of God.
It is one command because when we love our neighbors, we are loving God. When we devote ourselves to the care for the least of these, we are devoting ourselves to God.
This is ultimately the remarkable transformation of hearts and minds Jesus offers, not only to those who met him the flesh, but all of us who follow centuries after. That our love and devotion to God is not measured by the sincerity of our hearts, but in the love we express to our neighbors. That we don’t only look out for our own daily bread, but everyone else’s too. That we fight injustice and transform unjust systems which constrain our neighbors from eating and sleeping and being made whole.
These aren’t two commands, but one. A command which makes spiritual and physical devotion the same.
A physical devotion made real when we love the God we see in every single person by feeding them, healing them, or just listening to them like they are the only person in the whole world. Like you were listening to God speak directly to you. Because you are.