Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Great(est) Commandment

One of the first prayers Christian parents traditionally teach their children is “Our Father, Who art in Heaven...  Jewish parents teach theirs the Shema.  It starts, “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.  It’s so fundamental to Jewish consciousness that Viktor Frankl recalls Auschwitz victims repeating it as they were ushered to their death.  The complete prayer comprises three passages taken from Deuteronomy chapters 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and Numbers chapter 15:37-41.  Because of Jesus’s quotation, the verse, “[And] You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” has become known as the Great(est) Commandment.

  1. Jesus was grilled by the religious hierarchy.  They were trying to catch Him out (Matthew 22:15, Mark 12:15).  A Pharisee asked him which was the greatest commandment in the Law.  In response, Jesus linked two Old Testament scriptures as equally “great”: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 [Love your neighbour as yourself].  When the expert congratulated Him, Jesus assessed that he wasn’t far from the kingdom.  This shut down any more questions.
  2. Matthew records (22:40) Jesus adding, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.  What does this mean?  Commentators point to the impossibility of engaging our whole personality in devotion towards God without it impacting those around us.  Likewise, the highest attempts at doing good (altruism) return as an exercise in self-love and self-satisfaction if we haven’t first stepped out of our own concerns and priorities into surrender to the interests of another Personality.  (See 1 John 4:20.)
  3. What’s the relevance to us?  Jesus’ stance towards the Law was either to fulfill it; or to correct false applications or interpretations (as he’d done with the previous question about resurrection).  Since the New Covenant stands in continuity with the Old, we need a working knowledge of it.  Interestingly, Jesus points His disciples not to His own righteousness, but the Father’s (Matthew 5:48; Luke 6:36) as the model standard for love and justice.  So here’s something to consider and learn from.
  4. The Old Testament sources also point to how this full-on love is to be taught and protected, and some of its tangible effects.  The Hebrew meaning of heart, mind and strength/might isn’t quite what we understand today.  It can be reasonably said that only Jesus could perfectly love – God and neighbour – like this.  Thus we need filling with His love to obey, too.
  5. As appropriate for those called to be God’s new covenant people, the later New Testament writers pick up the love your neighbour theme, and apply it in their practical teaching to the churches. 
 So, what’s this about?  Our capacity for love must find a safe and rewarding supply and focus.  God is this.
1 CORINTHIANS 8:6  yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

Trick question.  It’s a tragedy when profound wisdom becomes a matter of points scoring or cheap controversy.  Don’t let it happen.
MATTHEW 22:35  One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  36 "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?"  37 Jesus replied: " `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  38 This is the first and greatest commandment.  39 And the second is like it: `Love your neighbour as yourself.'  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
MARK 12:28  One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating.  Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?"  29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'  31 The second is this: `Love your neighbour as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."  32 "Well said, teacher," the man replied.  "You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."  34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." 

Moses cites “fearing God” means standing in awe of Him and holding Him in utmost reverence and respect.  The reason given is to insure the nation's well-being and increase.  There is only one true God, and that this true God is Israel's God.  There is only one Lord, and He alone is God.  His people have entered into covenant with Him.  “Love” means the totality of commitment in the purest and noblest movements of trust and obedience toward God.  The words taken together mean His people are to love God with their whole selves.
DEUTERONOMY 6:3  Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.  4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 
LEVITICUS 19:15  " `Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great, but judge your neighbour fairly.  16 " `Do not go about spreading slander among your people.  " `Do not do anything that endangers your neighbour’s life. I am the LORD.  17 " `Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbour frankly so you will not share in his guilt.  18 " `Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the LORD.

Applied in family life and daily affairs, serving and worshipping God alone, and respect in social agreements.
DEUTERONOMY 6:7  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.    12 be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  13 Fear the LORD your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name.
DEUTERONOMY 11:13  So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today -- to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul --  14 then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil.  15 I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.  16 Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them.

What good are two “greatests”?  We are both mechanical and mystical, and can’t divide ourselves.  In a strong culture we can yield in conformity without receiving inwardly: truth, creativity and love don’t form in us.
LUKE 10:25  On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.  "Teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  26 "What is written in the Law?" he replied.  "How do you read it?"  27 He answered: " `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, `Love your neighbour as yourself.' "  28 "You have answered correctly," Jesus replied.  "Do this and you will live."
LUKE 18:18  A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"  19 "Why do you call me good?"  Jesus answered.  "No one is good -- except God alone.  20 You know the commandments: `Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother.' "  21 "All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.  22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing.  Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me."

Later writers steered the church away from religiously codified behaviour to the greater challenge of love.
ROMANS 13:9  The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbour as yourself."  10 Love does no harm to its neighbour.  Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. 
GALATIANS 5:14  The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbour as yourself." 
JAMES 2:8  If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbour as yourself," you are doing right. 

Application  Products capture our hearts, neuroses our minds, entertainment our strength: we need saving!
·       Loving God is contrasted with engaging with idols. What are today’s idols; where are you snagged up in them?
·       Loving and serving God is contained in holy family and social life.  What part are you playing in building these?
·       Paul (Acts 17:23) was able to describe the God worshipped in ignorance.  How could you go about doing this?

Scripture quotes from the New International Version.
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Thee will I love, my Strength, my Tower,
Thee will I love, my Joy, my Crown,
Thee will I love with all my power,
In all Thy works, and Thee alone;
Thee will I love, till the pure fire
Fill my whole soul with chaste desire.

2. Ah, why did I so late Thee know,
Thee, lovelier than the sons of men!
Ah, why did I no sooner go
To Thee, the only ease in pain!
Ashamed, I sigh, and inly mourn,
That I so late to Thee did turn.

3. In darkness willingly I strayed,
I sought Thee, yet from Thee I roved;
Far wide my wandering thoughts were spread,
Thy creatures more than Thee I loved;
And now if more at length I see,
’Tis through Thy light and comes from Thee.

4. I thank Thee, uncreated Sun,
That Thy bright beams on me have shined;
I thank Thee, who hast overthrown
My foes, and healed my wounded mind;
I thank Thee, whose enlivening voice
Bids my freed heart in Thee rejoice.

5. Uphold me in the doubtful race,
Nor suffer me again to stray;
Strengthen my feet with steady pace
Still to press forward in Thy way;
My soul and flesh, O Lord of might,
Fill, satiate, with Thy heavenly light.

6. Give to mine eyes refreshing tears,
Give to my heart chaste, hallowed fires,
Give to my soul, with filial fears,
The love that all Heaven’s host inspires;
That all my powers, with all their might,
In Thy sole glory may unite.

7. Thee will I love, my joy, my crown,
Thee will I love, my Lord, my God;
Thee will I love, beneath Thy frown,
Or smile, Thy scepter, or Thy rod;
What though my flesh and heart decay?
Thee shall I love in endless day!

Words: Johann Scheffler, Heilige Seelenlust, 1657 (Ich will dich lieben, meine Stärke); translated from German to English by John Wesley, 1739.

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