Read: Matthew 22:34-40
What is the single most important thing you need to do in your life? Someone came to Jesus one day and asked that very question. Listen to his answer.
On hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV)
So Jesus is approached one day by a hostile interrogator, a Pharisee who was also an expert in the Jewish religious law. This man has a question for him. “Teacher,” he asks, “which is the most important commandment of God? In their intense study of the Bible the Pharisees had tabulated no less than 613 distinct commandments from God’s law, so it’s no wonder they were interested in identifying some priorities. This Pharisee, however, was not a sincere truth seeker. His real motive in bringing his question, we’re told, was to test Jesus, perhaps to embarrass him by forcing him to come up with a quick answer on the spot. Or maybe the Pharisee was hoping he could lure Jesus into offending people by offering an answer they disagreed with. Nevertheless, he asks a good question. The man’s motive may have been false, his tone may have been insincere—but his question is still a valid one.
To ask, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” is really to ask, “What does God most want me to do? What’s the one thing he wants me to remember? What action does he want me to make my highest priority?” All of which is the same as asking, “What is the single most important thing in the world for me to do?”
Well, what is it? Listen again to Jesus’ answer: Love God, and love your neighbor too. That’s the main thing, that’s the first thing—in fact, that’s the only thing. Christians call it the Great Commandment. It sums up God’s entire law. In fact, this is not only a summary of the law, it is the whole law. Love is all there is to the law of God. We tend to think of God’s law as a long string of prohibitions and rules, a sort of super-sized “to do” list, accompanied by an equally long and detailed “don’t do” list. That’s understandable. There’s no getting around it: there are many commandments in the Bible. But what Jesus helps us to understand by articulating this Great Commandment is that all the various lesser commands are really just principles that help to define love on a practical level, that is, on the level of day-to-day living.
Consider the Ten Commandments, for instance. The first four of them amplify what it means to truly love God. So if we love God we will put him first in our life, above all other allegiances or relationships. And we will reject all forms of idolatry; and will show reverence for his sacred name and his holy day.
The other six commandments help to define in concrete terms how we must love our neighbor. Not only are harmful actions forbidden by God’s law: things like lying, stealing, adultery, murder and the like. But the Bible also makes it clear that we must try to do good to others, to help them whenever we can. That’s what it means to love my neighbor.
Loving God with Heart, Soul and Mind
So there are two parts to Jesus’ great commandment and they both center on love: love for God and love for our neighbor. The two go together; as Jesus once said in another context, “What God has joined, let no one separate.” The Bible teaches that neither of these commands by itself is enough. To claim that we love God while hating or mistreating other people is just plain hypocrisy. According to the apostle John, doing that makes you a liar (1 John 4:19-21). But on the other hand, trying to love other people without first loving God is a futile effort at best. Because only when we have been transformed by God’s grace, only when God’s Spirit lives in us inspiring and empowering us, will we really be able to live for others in the same way that Jesus did. So both parts of Jesus’ Great Commandment hang together.
But I also want to consider each of those parts in more detail, beginning today with the commandment to love God. How can we love God with all our heart, soul and mind? What does that mean? The short answer is that it means loving God with everything we are and have. We have to love God entirely, with our whole being, with all that we are.
But let’s develop this idea just a bit. First of all, let’s look at what loving God with all our heart means. The heart, in the biblical sense of that term, refers not so much to the seat of our emotions as to the center of our personality. Your heart is your essential nature. It’s the real you. So loving God “with all your heart” could also be thought of as loving God “with a whole heart,” that is, undividedly. Too often we exhibit a sort of spiritual schizophrenia, a spiritual split personality. Part of us wants to be a Christian, but part of us also wants to be at home with and in the world. And we love so many different things. Our hearts can be so divided. We love God, but we also love money – and all the comforts and pleasures money can buy. We love God, but we also love success and happiness as the world defines those things. We love God, but we also love our own egos, and the rush we get from power or fame. Divided hearts love contradictory things. Lives with a divided allegiance send out conflicting messages, like a provocatively dressed woman who’s wearing a cross around her neck. And that is not a good thing.
Next, what does it mean to love God with all our soul? The word “soul” is used in many different senses in the Bible. It can refer simply to the whole person, or it can mean our inward being, the part of us that survives death. Here I think Jesus uses it to indicate that part of us that decides and chooses, in other words, our will. When Jesus urges us to love God with our whole soul, he is reminding us of the importance, above all, of obedient living. Loving God in this way means choosing to pursue one thing above all alternatives: and that one thing is to do the will of God. Love, as we all know, is more than just feelings and emotions, likes and dislikes. It’s more than words that we say. It’s good that we should be passionate about God, that we should desire him as the deer longs for flowing streams, that we should speak our love in words of praise. But ultimately our feelings and words are meaningless unless they issue in acts of obedience to God. If we love God with all our soul we will commit ourselves to doing nothing less than the will of God every moment of every day. And that’s not easy.
Finally, let’s consider what it means to love God with all our mind. At the very least, it suggests to us that we need to care about ideas and thought. We must be willing to wrestle with complex issues and hard questions. While it is certainly better to be a humble, obedient believer than to be a great thinker who leads a bad life, that doesn’t mean we can dispense with the duty of striving to be thinking Christians. If we’re ever tempted to belittle advanced study, for example, or higher education, if we think we can ignore the intellectual life and “just believe in the Bible,” if we are not interested in things like science, culture or the arts because we’re only following Jesus, then his command to love God with all our mind ought to make us think differently. It is increasingly difficult to love God with our mind in a culture that teaches us to think as if there is no God. But that makes it all the more imperative to follow Jesus’ great commandment.
Loving God in all these ways is neither easy nor simple, but it is crucial. Even more than that, it’s a wonderful privilege. Don’t think of loving God as just some sort of duty or burdensome obligation. Think of it like this: the God of the whole universe loves you, and he wants nothing more from you than to love him in return. He has made it possible for you to do exactly that. He has sent his Son Jesus Christ to live and to die on your behalf, so that you could be forgiven, cleansed, and restored in love to him. What could be better than that?
A lot of voices in our culture are telling us that the most important thing in the world is to love ourselves, accept ourselves, to be ourselves. We’re constantly being urged to join in what movie star Shirley MacLaine called the “most pleasurable” of journeys, the one into our own egos. But I think I’ll pass on that invitation. I don’t really need or want any more encouragement to love myself. I want to know how to love God. What I really desire is to escape from myself and my clamoring ego and all its needs and to offer my life in loving service to God through Jesus Christ. I’m convinced that this is the way that leads to true meaning, real fulfillment and, yes, lasting pleasure. Won’t you join me in the great adventure of loving God?