Roger Severino

THE DANGER OF THE GREAT COMMANDMENT

Mark 12:28-34
28 One of the scribes approached. When he heard them debating and saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which command is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. 31 The second is, Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other command greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, teacher. You have correctly said that he is one, and there is no one else except him. 33 And to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is far more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one dared to question him any longer.

This is such a well-known, foundational saying of Jesus that it is in danger of being marginalized and overlooked. Love God. Love People. It’s that simple. Well, yes . . . and no.

Context

It has been said that there are 613 commands in the Old Testament. How does a faithful Jew prioritize these? Most might begin with the 10 Commandments, but perhaps this needs further abbreviation.

So, a trained interpreter of the Hebrew Scripture (a scribe) approaches Jesus to get his opinion—possibly out of genuine interest, or possibly to trap him. Jesus begins with the “Shema,” the foundational confession of orthodox Judaism found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Along with the injunction to love God with all our being, Jesus adds the instruction to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

In some ways Jesus’ two commands are a summary of the 10 Commandments. The first four commands instruct us about loving and honoring God, and the last six demonstrate the practice of neighborly love.

Cost of Discipleship

We can debate whether Jesus is telling us about different ways to love God (heart, soul, mind, and strength), but there is no doubt that we are called to love Him with all our being. Jesus does not say “Love the Lord your God on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights,” nor does he say we love God by observing certain rituals or religious practices, or simply identifying with other believers.

How many sitting in our pews on Sunday morning can truthfully say they have surrendered their desires and decision-making to God? How many of us are defined more by our identity as a Christ-follower than the labels and values the world hands out? Dare I even ask if I care as much about meeting the needs of my neighbor as I am committed to my own?

Suddenly “loving God and loving people” is not so basic and non-controversial. It is the high cost of discipleship.

Priority of Order

Jesus is clear about the priority of order in these commands. These are not interchangeable in sequence. There is a “most important” and there is a “second.”

As a follower of Jesus, I must first put my relationship with God in right order. In fact, I do not even have the capacity to love my neighbor as I should without God’s help. I am much too self-seeking to do this, and my human love gets tainted with all sorts of selfish motives. Even with the transformation that Jesus is doing in me, I probably still cannot rid myself of all mixed motives. My only hope to love my neighbor is to pursue a daily surrender to Christ’s lordship and allow him to love others through me.

The Necessity of Both

Jesus forever links the vertical relationship (loving God) with the horizontal (loving others). In the Apostle John’s first epistle, he makes this abundantly clear, particularly in chapter 4. “The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (4:8). “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and yet hates his brother or sister, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother or sister whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (4:20).

Some of us may try to get around this and find a loophole by limiting the definition of my “neighbor” (those who are like me, think like me, worship like me). Sorry, Jesus smashes this escape clause in Luke 10 by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our neighbor is anyone we encounter who is in need.

The danger of the Great Commandment is that it can be digested as comfort food rather than experiencing the sting of its requirement.

So, yes, love God and love people. But, realize the high and costly command this is—not a cliché for the masses, but the perilous narrow way for the few.

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