'When the Pharisees heard that Jesus 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.'
--Matthew 22: 34-46
Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment, and the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
If those words sound familiar to you then odds are you’re a Rite I or 1928 Prayer Book Episcopalian. In the Before Time, pre-COVID, our Sunday morning 8:00 service, which uses older, more traditional language, always read those words from Jesus. Collectively, they are often called the Summary of the Law. When our Prayer Book was updated in 1979 the Summary of the Law was no longer a mandatory part of our worship, which is why, if you've tuned in for any of our recent online Spiritual Communion services, we don't say it.
Our Gospel text from Matthew doesn’t use the Elizabethan language of our Rite I 8:00 service, but the point is still made. Jesus is asked—or rather, tested—by a lawyer to offer what he thinks is the greatest commandment, which was not actually unusual for the time; rabbis were often asked their opinion on all 613 commandments of the Torah—and yeah, there are way, way more than just 10! This may at first seem like a loaded question—like ‘What’s the greatest amendment to the Constitution?’ (I’m sure you’d get a lot of answers to that one!), but it was normal for rabbis to be asked such a question, and Jesus’ response was a standard one, he quotes the Shema, the great declaration of Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ Every child of Israel knows this verse.
It not only declares God’s oneness but it remains to this day a declaration that our Jewish siblings put in containers called mezuzahs by their doorposts and wear on their heads and wrists little boxes called tefillin or phylacteries. This first commandment is pretty standard, no surprises from Jesus here.
That would have likely satisfied this lawyer’s test, but Jesus does him one better. He adds another; in fact, Jesus says the second commandment is like the first, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you know your 10 Commandments—and I’m sure you do—you’ll remember that this isn’t actually the second commandment, which is actually "thou shalt not to make or worship any graven image."
Here Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19: 18; that is, a completely different book of the Hebrew Bible from the first commandment! In its original context, this commandment comes at the end of a long list of prohibitions to keep Israel from exploiting the weak and the poor. All of those ‘thou shalt nots’ get summed up in the full statement of that verse: You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
It is clear that, for Jesus, these two verses from different sacred texts are inextricably linked. If we look at the 10 Commandments alone we even see that the first four show us how to be in relationship with God, while the latter six show us how to be in relationship to one another. But Jesus was far from the first teacher to make such a connection.
Rabbi Hillel, who died six years before Jesus was born, was said to have been challenged by a Gentile to recite the whole of Torah while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel lifted his leg and said, ‘What is hurtful to you do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole of Torah, the rest is the explanation; go and learn.’ There is clearly no love of God without there being love of neighbor; the two are one in the same, and as the First Letter of John reminds us, anyone who proclaims the former but doesn’t show the latter is a liar.
Rabbi Hillel's encounter with the Gentile.
Love God, love your neighbor. It sounds so simple and is so familiar to us that it’s become something of a Christian cliché. However, it’s anything but simple. Consider what it really means to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength. To do so means to give all of our allegiance to God and God alone, not the powers and principalities of this world that entice us and beg us for their devotion on a daily basis, especially right now. To love God also means recognizing the presence of God, the Creator of all things, in the very creation around us and in us.
Throughout the Bible we are told that human beings are not just a collection of chemicals and bones and dust, but we are made in the very image of God. Again, this may seem like something of a cliché but we are. All of us! It is for that reason that we are, in fact, lovable. Take away that reality, make people think they are not lovable, not made in God's image, and that’s when the worst of humanity shines through; that’s when it becomes impossible to love our neighbor, and by extension, God.
One of my favorite modern theologians is the Franciscan friar and teacher Richard Rohr, who, taking after the late Trappist Thomas Merton, often speaks about the false self and the true self. The false self is constantly trying to win the favor of God because it has been fed the lie that it is not, in fact, lovable, while the true self rests in the knowledge of one’s own belovedness, understanding that being in relationship with God doesn’t mean always being perfect, but it does mean not having to be stuck in the false self.
Many of us get trapped in that false self, believing we could not possibly be lovable, and so we throw all our love toward our neighbor, and yes, even toward God, but we fail to love ourselves. This may, at first, feel like we are doing something admirable, sacrificing our own needs for the sake of others, but the more we reject our belovedness, the more easily we succumb to shame—which uses every mistake we’ve ever made to “prove” to us that we are unlovable—and the more we stay in the false self, separated from our true self and the knowledge of God’s love for us.
We cannot actually love God until we love our neighbor, and we cannot love our neighbor until we love ourselves. This is why when you get on an airplane they tell you, in the event of an emergency, to secure your own oxygen mask before someone else’s. We have to take care of ourselves before we can begin to care for anyone else. The Gospel of Jesus Christ liberates us from all that keeps us locked in our false selves.
Secure your own mask.
The rigid legalism showcased by the religious authorities is all about the false self, convincing people that if they don’t follow every letter of the law they will be unworthy of God’s love. Jesus understands how absurd and harmful this approach is, which is why he turns their own rigidity against them and asks them how the Messiah can be both David’s son and Lord. They don’t have an answer for him because they can’t think of God in any way beyond their own legalistic power structures or their rudimentary understanding of the relationship between a father and son, and so from that moment they never ask him another question.
I imagine there was never a person on earth who understood what it meant to dwell in the true self better than Jesus Christ, and for good reason. As Fr. Rohr again puts it, Jesus didn’t so much come to show us what God looked like—although he certain does do that—but he came to show us what being fully human looks like!
It looks like being in relationship with God, with one another, and with ourselves. To be fully human is to be grounded in love of God, which begins in our own hearts and extends to each person we meet, whom we can look at and see the beloved image of God. Often the ones who cause the most pain towards others are those who do not believe their own belovedness.
Today Jesus not only gives us good news for a deeply polarized culture, calling us to see the imago dei—the image of God—in our neighbor, but he gives us the free gift of grace, of God’s love for us that is not earned and cannot ever be taken away.