The Greatest Commandment

October 23, 2005
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
Matthew 22:34-40

What Is The Greatest Commandment?

1. Just before today's passage of scripture, the particulars are enumerated in which Jesus deftly replied to the Sadducees who had brought to him a difficult question, and he had stopped them in their speech. The Pharisees got hold of this. In a certain sense, the news that the Sadducees had gotten shot down in an argument and lost some honor was good news to the Pharisees. That's because the Sadducees were against the Pharisees for doctrinal reasons. In particular, a major point in dispute had to do with the hope of the resurrection. The Sadducees claimed that there was anything but a resurrection, and the Pharisees believed in a resurrection in a world that is to come. Since the Sadducees were defeated in a talk about the resurrection, that would be grounds for joy for the Pharisees.

2. But, it was also not so good news for them because it looked to them ever more so to be true that more of the public was in hot support of Jesus. Their sense of crisis must have escalated. The way things were going even the authority of the Jewish leaders would be jeopardized. They got together and discussed it. Then one of them stood up to represent "the scribes of the law," [the legal specialists], and taking a question on the law to Jesus, he came dead on to Jesus for a showdown on "the law." The question was "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?" This was an often debated theme among the Jews.

3. There is a Jewish web site called "," a site I go to sometimes. Six thirteen (613) refers to the number of commandments in the law. There are two hundred and forty-eight positive commands of "Thou shalt." There are three hundred and sixty-five negative commands of "Thou shalt not." All together it comes to six hundred and thirteen. We see from how many of these commandments there are that the question of "Which is the greatest commandment?" is a tough one, hardly simple at that. The scene is [one where] these "scholars of the law" well versed in debate of this type take up a major issue and come to Jesus to try to test him.

4. The Pharisees have animosity towards Jesus of Nazareth. The origins of their [feelings] is found in issues over "the law, [the Torah]." Jesus had too much of a liberal attitude toward the law. He had no qualms eating with a non Torah observant group of people. Worse than that, [to them] Jesus himself had no problem going against the law [of oral tradition]. It wasn't only the tax collectors and sinners with whom he ate meals who did not practice the rites of purification before a meal. Even Jesus and his disciples when together weren't practicing the purification rites, but were taking their meals [unclean]. And that's not all. Nor did they even keep the law of the Sabbath Day. The scripture says, on the Sabbath, when it was forbidden to do labor, Jesus dared to heal a man sick with a palsied hand, (12:9ff). Just after that happened, the scripture says, "The Pharisees had come out and discussed how they might kill Jesus," (12:14). So, we see from that how the act of healing [someone] on the Sabbath gave rise within them even this wish to murder.

5. Setting the scribes of the law against Jesus, they challenged him in head-on debate. Obviously this man Jesus from Nazareth was not a follower of any famous rabbi. Neither did it look like he had received any technical training or education. As seen by the scribes of the law, he was an amateur all in all. It would be great to expose the truth before the crowd that Jesus and his disciples' mentality on the law was coming from ignorance of the law. Everybody's eyes would be opened if they could shame Jesus whose disciples followed right behind him [as] he was acting like some rabbi. By doing that, the people would no doubt re-commit to the authority of those who did receive a technical education in the law and they would surely come back to their original way of being [towards them]. In short, that's how their plan went. Then the specialists in the law jabbed at Jesus with what could be called the central issue of the law, saying, "Master, which is the most important commandment in the law?"

Love Neighbor, Love God

6. First of all, in regard to that question, Jesus gave this answer: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all of your thoughts." This is the first greatest commandment," (verses thirty-seven and thirty-eight).

7. To a degree, this is the answer expected even by the Pharisees. [I] say that because these are [the same] words that an adult Jew was supposed to recite twice each day, in the morning and in the evening. It is a quote from Deuteronomy chapter six and verse five.

8. "Love the Lord your God." -- To the Pharisees loving God did not merely mean an emotional state. It specifically meant the keeping of what the Lord commanded. It means to observe the law. It is the six hundred and thirteen commandments. In that case, the command to "Love the Lord your God" takes on a comprehensive meaning. In order to love the Lord like that, the Pharisees took serious thought on how to apply in their every day living a fulfillment of what the Lord commanded. At least, that was where their original intention used to be. They observed the law for that purpose, and they taught [others] to do the same. Therefore, when Jesus said, "Love the Lord your God. This is the first greatest commandment," naturally they were dead set on interrogating him with "Then, why don't you observe the law? Why don't you keep God's commandments? And, why don't you teach [others] to keep [God's commandments]?"

9. But, then there is another part to Jesus' answer. In spite of the fact that the scribes of the law had asked Jesus, "Which is the greatest commandment (singular) in the law?," he began to speak on the "second" commandment. "The second one also is as important as the first. 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' The entire law and the prophets are based on these two commandments," (verses thirty-nine and forty). This is the quote from Leviticus chapter nineteen and verse eighteen. Jesus quoted it and then went on to add "The second one also is important like this one." In other words, he spoke of "loving one's neighbor" as indivisible with "loving God." It is undeterminable as to whether Jesus was the first person to join these two [commandments] together. Still though, you can be sure that the words and the deeds of Jesus unite these two connections into one body. His having healed the man with the palsied hand on the Sabbath was nothing other than a demonstration that the commandments of "loving God" and "loving one's neighbor" are one.

10. Any way, the words of Jesus must have penetrated sharply into the inner most being of the Pharisees who were the scribes of the law and the others around them. The reason is that observing the law was not necessarily always tied to loving one's neighbor. No, much rather, the stronger one's awareness that "I am observant of the law," the more thoughts of looking down on others and the more animosity and hatred against those not honoring the law will grow. As a matter of fact, they were even entertaining the thought of murder against Jesus who was right there in front of them. In a sense, Jesus was returning a question back to them as they stood this way, "So, are you [really ever] going to love God?"

11. The Bible teaches that "God made humanity in his own image," (Genesis 1:27). Therefore, loving human beings created in God's image and loving God has to be interrelated. People might have said that Jesus' having joined "loving God" to "loving neighbor" is something that society would totally expect to be done. But, this expectation often is overlooked. It happened not just with Pharisees but also in the church afterwards. Later on John wrote it this way in an epistle: "If someone hates his brother while claiming, 'I love God,' that [person] is a liar. The person, who does not love his brother whom he can see with his own eyes, cannot love God whom he cannot see with his own eyes. The person who loves God ought to love his brothers, too. This is a commandment [we] have received from God," (First John 4:20-21). It [shows] that circumstances that made him write like that were also in the church.

12. So, I think I can say that the fact that Jesus joined "loving God" to "loving neighbor" with the words "it is the same as the [first commandment]" has important meaning even for us today. There is a song in the hymnal (number five hundred and twenty-nine) called, "Blessed Assurance [the Japanese title is more like 'Oh, What A Happy Soul Am I']." It is a song by Fanny Crosby, and one of my favorite songs to sing. The lyrics of "Not I, not the world but only the Lord makes me alive ['I in my Saviour am happy and blest']" etc are very pleasant [as] a translated poem, but I feel like some precaution is in order. "I in my Saviour am happy and blest." -- There are a lot of people looking for that kind of faith life. But, when that turns out to mean "All you need is Jesus in your life; Relationships with neighbors are troublesome and a bother," then it is an issue. [Faith requires] the "I" in it; yet, it is very important that there also be with it "the neighbor."

As Persons Loved By God

13. Well, we have mused around the answer Jesus gave. But, what we ought to hear from today's passage of scripture is not this alone. To be truthful, in today's passage the truly important part lies elsewhere. It is that these words were spoken from the mouth of Christ just before his passion. These words must be heard as a message from the Christ as he was heading for the cross, but we have yet to hear it.

14. Just before we read a message from John's epistle. In the same chapter of his epistle the following [message] is written. "God sent his only son into the world. He did that so that we might live through him. Here is where the love of God is shown in us. We did not love God, but God loved us, and he sent his son as a sacrifice to atone for our sin. Here is where love is found. O beloved, because God has loved us in this manner, we ought to love one another as well," (First John 4:9-11).

15. "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your mind, and with all of your thoughts." -- This is the most important commandment. That is certainly true. But, the love by which we love God didn't come first. We didn't love God or [do anything for him]. But God loved us even when we didn't love him. [What he did] for us! We didn't love him, rather instead we rebelled against him, but still he pardoned us and even more, to love us, to love us completely, he made his own son to be a sacrifice of atonement for our sins. This is what happened at the death by crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Our love did not come first. God loved us. -- Therefore, we will live loving God, looking to him once again, as persons loved by God. As persons loved by God, we receive the greatest of commandments, and we can take a step towards obedience to that command.

16. So, as we've seen just ago, to live loving God also means to live loving others. Therefore, John also says, "Because God has loved us in this manner, we ought to love one another as well." We need to recall to mind another truth then at this point. God the Son became flesh. He became a human being. In Jesus Christ, God became our "neighbor." Crossing the hugely unimaginable dividing wall which lies between God and humanity, God became our neighbor, and he loved us as neighbors.

17. When he hit him with the statement "Love your neighbor as yourself," theoretically speaking, I would say the scribe of the law probably had only one way out. Had he wanted to say, "We do love our neighbors. But those sinners are not our neighbors. Neither are you our neighbor," he probably could have. I suppose so. We can do the same thing and justify our own "selves for not loving" [others] in many cases. We could also say "But that guy isn't my neighbor" and line up reasons for our hating him or her.

18. However, but before the truth that God himself crossed the great dividing wall and became our neighbor, how much do the dividing walls that we are walling up around ourselves make sense? Are they as truly unsurpassable as we think them to be? As persons who have received love from God as his neighbors, we also receive the words of another commandment. "Love your neighbor as yourself." Indeed, by our accepting these words as persons who have received God as our neighbor, we can take a step towards obedience of this message.