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The Greatest Commandment

00:00 / 01:04

29 Oct 2023

Last after Trinity

Leviticus 29:1-2,15,18; 1 Thess. 2:1-8; Matt. 22:34-end

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And 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 great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:34-end

An Excellent Question

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Matt. 22:36). Although we are told that the Pharisees were once again trying to show up Jesus, nevertheless, the lawyer who asked this question got a straight answer. Since Jesus would often give cryptic answers or reject certain questions out of hand, we can only assume that he approved of such an enquiry. And maybe the reason is that this question really takes us into the heart of everything: not only the meaning of human existence but into the reality of God himself.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

Let’s begin by observing a paradox about Jesus’ answer. The question is, on the surface, about the Law. When we think about laws, we consider regulations, rules, justice, transgression, punishment and things of this sort. But Jesus speaks of something deeper that an external obedience to a written code: he speaks of love. And in doing so, he reveals to us that God’s desire for mankind is not first submission or obedience or fear but desire. That is, that our orientation to God must be first from the an inward place of devotion and delight. As Christ said elsewhere, quoting Hosea 6:6, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Matthew 12:7).

We should pause here for a point of application. When we love something, we take delight in it and it is from that delight that we give ourselves to it. That ought to be the order with God: love him first and all things will follow. Cultivate such love in yourself for him that you can say with the Psalmist, “You make known to me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy. At your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Recognise that God desires you to be happy and that happiness consists ultimately in knowing and loving him.

And this leads to a very reasonable question, which is “Why should we love God?” And the answer is given to us by St Augustine: “This virtue (ie to love God) consists in nothing else but in loving what is worthy of love. It is prudence to choose this.” In other words, we love God because we recognise that there is no object more worthy of our love than God, no source of joy or delight or pleasure or wisdom greater, and therefore we direct our affections and our worship towards him. This is wisdom because it is to invest in an eternal source of felicity and blessing.

We also love God because we recognise that in loving God we complete the purpose for which we were created to begin with. This is a very deep truth but it is one that is worth repeating and remembering: God created the world out of the delight and love and joy that he knew within himself before ever one thing was created. As Jesus prayed for his disciples in the High Priestly Prayer, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). This is God’s desire for us: that we may enter into the joy of the Holy Trinity, that abundance of life, love and holiness that has always been and always will be, into which God calls us through his Son Jesus Christ.

“with all”

We have said that love is the end of man. But what kind of love are we called to? The answer is that a total love of God is required of us. Once again, we should observe that this is not a slavish and fearful submission to harsh taskmaster, a Pharoah who seeks to weigh us down with heavy burdens and break our wills. Rather, we are called by God to love him with the whole of ourselves because it is only through an undivided love for him that we will most fully enter into his joyful life.

And we may wonder whether such love for God may take us away from this world and cause us to love less the things for which we feel natural affection: family, children, community, hobbies, diversions and all the pleasures of life. We may worry about this. But the fact is that, if we place God at the top of the hierarchy of our affections, we recognise the good things in our lives as gifts that are given by him to us for his glory and for our delight. We can therefore give thanks to God for his gifts to us and use those things in our lives in such a way as to please him and to bring us closer to him. We are therefore freed from the idolatrous obsession that we can sometimes have for the things of this world.

To give a small example. Most people love food and indeed it is one of the joys and delights of our lives. But if we love food above all us then we make food into our god. From there, we may overindulge in food. We may spend too much money and too much time on it. We may overeat and become unhealthy. In seeking the same pleasure food brought us before we may eat even more of it and continue to become more unhealthy day-by-day. And, before we know it, food has become a tyrant ruling over us, demanding our devotion and our affection and asking us to give more and more of ourselves to it whilst delivering to us ever diminishing returns of pleasure.

But, if we put food in its rightful place, then the situation is transformed. Food can be seen as one pleasure in life which is given to us by God for his glory so that we might give thanks to him for his goodness to us. We therefore give thanks to God at our mealtimes and we do not allow food to be the dominant priority of our lives. Rather, food must be used in such a way as to help us to love God more.

This example can be applied to anything in life: our relationships with each other, particularly romantic relationships, have a tendency to take on a kind of idolatrous quality, whereby we are so obsessed with one other person that the rest of life becomes and irrelevance. Careers, hobbies, reputation, money, anything and everything can elevate itself to the throne room of our hearts and take the place of God. It is up to us to make sure that the highest place is given to the only one who is worthy. And this is the only way to ensure that the gifts that he gives to us can be properly enjoyed. We are no longer dependent upon them because we know the greatest and eternal joy that we have is in God and we can therefore give thanks for them and enjoy them in a way that is free of obsession and idolatry.

Heart, Soul, Mind, (Strength)

We are told to love God with several different parts of ourselves: heart, soul and mind. In the equivalent passage in Mark 12, we are also told to love God with all of our “strength”. There are various different ways of understanding each part, but one suggestion might be the following:

Heart – Intention

Soul – Affection

Mind – Understanding

Strength – Action

If we understanding Christ rightly here, the point is that every aspect of our humanity must be orientated towards God in love.

Perhaps we might draw an analogy here with a good husband. The good husband does not love his wife only with his intentions, or only with his affections, or only with his mind, or even only with his actions. To do so would be to act in a very strange way indeed: If he only intended to love his wife, he would know nothing of her and do nothing for her at all. If he only felt love for her, he would have no true understanding of her character and would only seek gratification from her. If he only understood her virtuous qualities, there would be no passion or feeling in the marriage. And if he only acted on her behalf, then he would be more like a slave than a husband. But a good husband loves in all of these things at once: in intention, in affection, in understanding and in action.

So it is with us and God: We love God by intending to please him; We love God in the depths of our feelings and our emotions; We love God by doing our best to understand his greatness through study and meditation upon his Word; and we love God through committing ourselves to him. Our faith, at its highest point, is, therefore, an active, emotional, engaged and convicted offering of devotion to God.

Once again, emotion is not enough. This leads to sentimentality and an unbalanced understanding.

But also, understanding is not enough. This is leads to religious coldness and a lack of corresponding passion for God.

The Church is too much divided into congregations of the soul and of the mind, one emphasising the head and one emphasising the heart. The whole man must be brought together in his love of God. Only then can we be said to be loving God with the whole of our being.

 “A second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”

This sermon is getting too long and there is so much to say about this deeply profound passage, but let me finish by observing that this second command is essential if we are going to fulfil the Law. Christ says that it is “like” the first commandment, meaning that it is conjoined to it, associated with it, part of the answer to the question of how to fulfil the law.

In other words, we cannot fully fulfil the law but loving God alone. That love must also be directed towards our neighbour.

Once again, this is not an arbitrary commandment that is to be observed in a cold and dispassionate way. There is an intrinsic connection between loving God and loving our neighbour and that is that our neighbour bears within himself the image of God. This reality is reflected in the words of Christ, speaking of the final judgment in Matthew 25:40: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”. What is done to the poor and those in need is done, in other words, to God himself. And this is because humanity is made in God’s image.

Who is our neighbour? This was the question asked of Christ when he told the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). Christ’s answer is deeply subversive as he makes a Samaritan the hero of his story. But the answer is clear: all humanity are one and are to prove themselves neighbours to one another.

How do I love my neighbour as myself? This again is an excellent question because it is not always clear how we can love ourselves well. We have to answer that to love our neighbour as ourselves is to consider our neighbour’s needs as carefully as we consider our own. We must actively consider our neighbour and think upon how to do them good.

The Fulfilment of God’s Purposes for Us

Let me finish here by saying that the two great commandments take us into the very heart of God himself and of his purposes for humanity. They speak of the ultimate destiny of individual men and women and of mankind in general. The individual is to be united in the God from whence he came in a relationship of love, service and devotion. But that is not all: the individual is to see that the image of the God he loves is present in his neighbour and is therefore to love him too. It is only in this way that his love for God is truly completed.


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