The Great Commandment
May 17, 2015 – Kevin Rees
Love God and others authentically. Audio file posted: www.kevinrees.sermon.net
There are laws, and then there are laws. Some are undoubtedly essential to society, while others leave you scratching your head wondering what circus came through town to warrant such a law to be written, ratified, and codified into legal statue. Adjectives like “strange” and “dumb” come to mind when reading some of the regulations that are still “on the books” in our national, state, and local laws.
All the states have their own peculiar laws, but just taking Tennessee laws by themselves, it is a wonder who comes up with this stuff and why it sticks around for so long. Most of these have credible sources cited (dumblaws.com, strangefacts.com/laws.html, facts.randomhistory.com/crazy-laws.html, tjshome.com.dumblaws.php?show=verified), but I did not fact-check every one of them, so don’t take me to court if you discover some of these have been revised. If you do take me to court about the court, we may spark new weird laws that could make the next generation scratch their heads later on.
It is apparently illegal in Tennessee: for students to hold hands while in school, to share your Netflix password with someone else, to use a lasso to catch a fish, for anyone who has been a contendant in a duel to hold elected office, for ministers to hold elected office because they are to be dedicated to God, for anyone disbelieving in God to hold elected office, for Christian parents to require their children to pick up trash from the highway on Easter, to sell hollow logs, or to import into the state any skunk for any reason unless you operate a bona fide zoological park. It is legal, however, to gather and consume roadkill. It remains illegal to shoot any game from a moving automobile, except whales. And, by the way, you cannot drive a car while sleeping. Curiously, you cannot sell bologna on Sundays. In Midway, it is illegal to wear socks with sandals. In Memphis is illegal for a restaurant customer to give pie to a fellow diner. And in Dyersburg, drumroll please, it is illegal for a woman to ask a man out on a date.
With ludicrous laws like these, it is understandable why someone might argue that certain laws are really important while other laws are unimportant. But the human heart loves its rules—whether it is a legal rule in a dusty law book in West Tennessee or an unwritten but unanimously accepted cultural rule in West Africa. Humans turn to rules to control the uncontrollable … or should I say, to attempt to control the uncontrollable.
For instance, if I can’t get my neighbor to tie up his adult-sized pitbull when my kids want to play in the yard, then I pressure my district legislature to write a rule that I can use to force my neighbor to behave in a more considerate manner. If my cousin’s cousin saw a fellow with Kentucky tags unload his skunk traps in Tennessee, then I pressure my district legislature to write a rule that I can use to force my bluegrass neighbor to behave in a more considerate manner. If somone’s grandpappy perhaps wanted to run for mayor but couldn’t find any leverage against the incumbent except the one rumor that he was in a duel in his early adulthood, then he pressured his district legislature to write a rule that he could use to force his neighbor out of office at the next election.
We have a love for rules. We try to legislate the world into order. To a point that’s proper—God ordained government as his servant to restrain evil so that good might flourish (Romans 13:1-4). But rules never change the heart. However, love can and does effect real change. Love rules, but love isn’t a rule.
In our text for today we have a lover of rules. A legal debate posed by a legal expert in hopes of gaining the high ground in the theological realm. But Jesus isn’t cornered as his enemies hoped. Instead he flips the entire conversation about laws upside down and argues instead for the primacy of love over law.
In Matthew chapter 22 there are actually four questions. Three questions are thrown at Jesus from every unfriendly sector to score some dirt on Jesus and, thus, make his “stock go down” in the public eye. They concoct their malicious stump-questions premeditatedly and attack him without provocation. The Herodians—who are the political and economic powerhouses—first try to corner Jesus with a question about government and religion regarding the issue of paying taxes to Caesar (vv. 15-22). The Sadducees—who are the aristocratic and financial powerhouses—try to trick Jesus with a question regarding the relationship between this life and the next (vv. 23-33). The Pharisees—who are the moral and cultural powerhouses—try to pin Jesus down with a question about the Mosaic Law, which is today’s focus (vv. 34-40). For your consideration this week, I encourage you to investigate the stump-question that Jesus volleys back to his questioners (vv. 41-46).
I. The Greatest Law (vv. 34-36)
Floating in Jewish thought and culture—and much debated among the rabbis—was a question of greatness. For them, of course, greatness was connected with the Mosaic Law. The Law was revered, memorized, and picked apart, but—as Jesus repeatedly pointed out to them to such a degree that their blood boiled—not obeyed. That being said, the Pharisees—who were the Mosaic Law evangelists, so to speak—neither recognized their hypocrisy nor the reason that the Law was given in the first place.
The Law was never given to make humans better, the Law only pointed out violations but never any help to restore or redeem violators, the Law was given to show humans that they cannot please God and are in a state of spiritual bankruptcy, in dire need of a Savior. That “job” the Law did extremely well, and so it was good, accurate, and holy. But the Law does not save sinners, does not justify the unrighteous, does not help the weak, and does not impart life—just as God designed. The Law brings us to the gospel of grace as a tutor.
What Jesus does do for this particular fellow as he asks this particular question (and for the crowd all watching to see if he will step into the Pharisees’ trap) is to show that there is a different operating principle altogether than law. The different operating principle is love. But love is not part of the Pharisees’ vocabulary, per se. So Jesus shines a light on love; remarkable, humble, unbelievable love.
“But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together” (vs. 34). The Sadducees were the rival enemies of the Pharisees. Sadducees didn’t believe in the afterlife or the miraculous or in the authority of any Scriptures beyond the first five books of Moses, yet they were the ruling majority in the Council of the Sanhedrin and controlled the dynasty of the priesthood. The Pharisees were the Bible-thumpers of the day; a grassroots group of rabbis and scribes who found prominence in the Maccabean era and rightly deserved it. But in the century after the Maccabean revolt, the Pharisees dug in to their traditions and their rigid interpretation of their tradition and their fences around their rigid interpretations of their tradition to such an extent that they were unwittingly enslaved to their own system. When Jesus upstaged their rivals, the Pharisees were gleefully entertained. They huddled up and decided that it would be quite a “feather in their cap” to puzzle the one who puzzled their rivals. So they picked their best debater and sent him out to face Jesus.
“And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him” (vs. 35). This lawyer was not like what we imagine a lawyer to be in the modern sense of attorney or advocate. He was a scholar in the Scriptures; an expert Bible student. We know from verse 35 that the intention of at least his group was malicious; even if he personally was not malicious. But the objective was to trap Jesus in a riddle that had been unsolvable by the rabbis for many years. The cross-reference in Mark shows a softer side to this lawyer and the tug on his heart by Jesus that nearly converted him in the act of trying to trap Jesus, whereas the reference in Luke shows a counterattack; so he seems to one of mixed motives (as all are).
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (vs. 36). You see, there were some rabbis who argued that of out of the 613 stipulations in the Mosaic Law—248 positive and 365 negative—the laws about circumcision where the “greatest” commandments, while other rabbis argued that the Sabbath laws were the “greatest,” and still others argued that the sacrificial laws or the dietary laws were the “greatest” commandments. There was an unsolvable dilemma in conservative Jewish circles about which laws were heaviest and which laws were lightest. The Pharisees threw Jesus in the middle of this melee so that he, whichever answer he gave, would at least cause some portion of the crowd to despise him; for everyone had his own favorite issues/laws.
This was a dirty, low-down, no-good trick. Sadly, such tricks did not die with these men two millennia ago. It is alive and well today. We are just as well-versed as they ever were at playing to the pet issues of the crowd, or holding the group back based on our pet issues, or determining whether someone is acceptable or unacceptable based on our pet issues. It is a dark art, and it is in every church because it is in every heart. And we use rules, or laws, to attempt to control the uncontrollable.
Dare I name some? It would be nothing short of deliberately putting my finger in the eye of many people. But I cannot begin there without first taking the plank out of my own eye with confession and repentance for the occasions when I hijacked a church, or a group, or a relationship, or an issue because of my pet issues. Earlier in my pastoral ministry I took a strong stance on the subject of the end times. Eschatology was my pet issue partly because it was an underrepresented slice of theology rarely covered. However, I used eschatology like a litmus paper test to determine if other people were orthodox or unorthodox. I had my charts and my opinions and my proof texts. But back then, if you did not agree with me in private, then you were suspicious. If you did not agree with me in public, then you were combatant. If you did not agree with me in spirit, then you might not even be Christian. There is no love when self is supreme.
I still hold nearly every point as I did back then, but my well-being is no longer attached to my pet issue. I relinquished its power over me and over my ability to pigeon-hole other people because God showed me that I was really just trying to control the uncontrollable. I was fearful that I might not be the “expert”; that I might be upstaged in competency and exposed as a fraud, which I secretly believed. I projected upon other people the opinion I had for myself, but stuffed way, way down below the surface. I distrusted others because I really felt untrustworthy myself. But I disguised this deep fear with bravado and with rules, thinking that if I performed well enough in a few, highly selected spheres, then I would be okay with God, with others, with myself, and with the world at large. But I had to control those spheres tightly, or I else would be exposed as weak. Gross! It wasn’t about truth as much as covering my inferiority.
So what about with you? I don’t know you well enough to presume to speak at such a deep level. But hear this: the Holy Spirit does know you well enough to speak at the deepest levels. The Holy Spirit has the right to poke you in the eye if it means your maturity. The Holy Spirit has access to not only your pet issues, but the reasons that those issues became pet issues in the first place, and the rules that you set up all around your pet issues in a vain attempt to protect you fragile ego.
It reminds me of that pesky Tim Keller quote, “The sin that is most destructive in your life right now is the one you are most defensive about.” Ouch! If Keller’s quote weren’t enough, Thom Rainer, stirs the pot some more by saying, “When the preferences of the church members are greater than their passion for the gospel, the church is dying.” Double ouch! Let’s make it an uneven three—Ravi Zacharias chimes in as well, “Unless I understand the cross, I cannot understand why my commitment to what is right must take precedence over what I prefer.” Triple ouch! But yes, Holy Spirit, please step on that nerve so that we hate whatever it is that keeps us from unity with God and community with one another; even if it is our pet issue … even our preference. “Anything that eclipses you, dear Lord, is an idol; even if it is good … even if it is great. If it eclipses you, it has to go.” In our text, that is what is going on: “Jesus, please endorse my favorite rule.” But the answer is not law; the answer is love.
II. The Greatest Commandment (vv. 37-38)
So which law stands first, which kind of law is heaviest, which category is greatest?? This is the presenting issue. The Pharisee leads with Law, but Christ answers with love. Law and love are contrasts.
The “what”—“You shall love the Lord your God” (vs. 37a). Taking a page out of the Law itself the Lord uses their trick question to expose the dark heart of the legalism. It is a verse that is quoted daily by the conservative Jews—then and now—Deuteronomy 6:4-5 forms the great Shema Prayer of Judaism. But the expert in the Law had missed the entire point of the Law—the Law points to Jesus. He missed it and misses Jesus.
To love (Greek: agapao) is not an emotional verb, though it is certainly strong enough to carry emotion. This kind of love is more accurately a volitional word; an action word. God decides to love us based on himself, not on us as worthy recipients, and then he acts upon that decision. Just like John 3:16: “For God so loved the world (volition) that He gave His only begotten Son (action).” Love is always active.
Here we are instructed to love the Lord our God as an act of the will that is coupled with a willing action on the basis of faith. But we are like the legalist in the narrative, we do not know love, nor do we have it, so giving love back to God is an impossible scenario. How can we be commanded to give what we do not have? This is the rub of the Law—we cannot do what we are commanded to do—for a grand purpose: so that we will cry out of our need for a Savior to do on our behalf what we cannot do for ourselves. The solution to the Law does not come from the Law, but from the love of the Lord in giving us an adequate substitute.
We simply do not have that kind of love to give back to God. It is first given to us in Christ, and when we become rightly related to Christ through faith, we are regenerated and given a brand new capacity to love with his love—agapao. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). But Jesus is pointing out that Moses knew the limits of the Law even when he wrote the Law; even back in Deuteronomy Moses is showing primacy to love over duty to the Law. This is the sphere of greatness—love!
The “how”—“With all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment” (vv. 37b-38). Our tendency is to dissect these pieces from each other—heart, soul, mind, Mark adds strength as a fourth, but not really a fourth as much as a “3a” and “3b” for the Hebrew word for might is both mindful and a singular determination of the will (“me’od,” The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament)—but the tip of the spear is the “all.” True, we are body and soul and spirit … we have internal, external, and eternal aspects to our being. There are certain ways that the spirit interacts with the soul and soul with the heart. And there are some interesting and important insights gained in chased each one down. But Jesus’ emphasis—in agreement with Moses—is clearly on the “all.” Love the Lord your God with your entire self. This is nothing less than a whole-person response to the whole Person of God revealed. This is worship. This is love. This is intimacy.
Frankly, no rabbi was debating that love is the greatest commandment. Jesus’ response is a complete shocker! It was not on their “radar” in the least.
Consider the triple emphasis of “all” in this verse; quadruple if you add verse 39. We can appreciate “all” by considering its opposite—“part.” What would it look like to love the Lord our God with half-hearts, half-souls, half-minds? Sometimes the Scriptures call it double—but having a double-hearted is not having twice as much heart but a heart that is vainly trying to look in two directions at the same time. Being double-souled is the same—the unsuccessful attempt to build a life/reputation/emotional sense of okayness on the rock and the sand simultaneously. A double-minded man, James tells us, is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). So follow a two-faced person, someone with a forked-tongue, or someone trying to lead a double-life. A fractured or scattered or splintered person is an anemic person; enduring a half-life at best. A fractured or scattered or splintered person is an alien to love and therefore an alien to worship.
Have you experienced half-heartedness—you have given pieces of your heart to different recipients; different saviors? Whole-heartedness would be the lump sum given to one recipient—all of you; your entirety. This is the basis of what we call integrity; an integer … a whole number … one … a non-fraction. A person of integrity is entire, whole, non-fractured, a non-fraction. Three-fouths of a heart, soul, and mind is just as damaging to integrity as trying to juggle five-fifths of a heart, soul, and mind.
Do you know what half-soulishness is like? The soul is commonly given the English word “psyche”—personality, passion, preference. We often defend our preferences, protecting them from the cross. But whole-souled worship is even the redirection of our personality, passion, preference, image, reputation, every internal nerve to the Lord our God. All of me responding to all of him.
Do you know what half- or double-mindedness is like? We can express devotion to the Lord our God by giving Him the entirety of our minds. The doubter is literally the double-minded man. We can have doubts without becoming the doubter. The doubter must understand before he can rest. Peter when he attempted to look at Jesus and the water at the same time was a double-minded man—double-faced. He sunk.
Whole-person allegiance to the Lord our God—this is the Great Commandment. We cannot have the God-compartment, the work-compartment, the romance-compartment, the recreation-compartment. It is all the Lord’s or it is not. There are no fractions with God. The legalist cannot conceive this. He wants a plain answer—which commandment is first? Love is first. No, love is not in the box. Love is the box. Without love you don’t have any of the 613 commandments. With love you don’t even have to know the commandments and you will keep them.
This may help and may serve as a good bridge to verses 38 and 39. On the books at the courthouse here in Dyersburg, or any county seat in the entire country, there are laws on parenting. Did you know that? There are laws about what makes a good and a bad parent. Neglect, provision, care, shelter, discipline—there are laws about how to parent. Sadly, there have to be laws because there are terrible parents out there. There are parents out there who are grown-ups, but who are not adults. Now, I don’t have to go down to the courthouse and learn these laws so determine whether or not I am a good parent. I know I am safe from these laws without ever laying eyes on the law book. How can I say such a thing with certainty? Love. My wife and I love our children. Because love is in operation, we know that we are obeying all those particular laws without even having to look at them. Because love is the greatest, the first, the heaviest—when we have love, we have no fear of the law. But if we do not love our children, then we have something to fear from the law. It is exactly as Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:8-9, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient.” Listen again: “The law is not laid down for the just, but for the lawless.” When love is in operation, then law is unnecessary. Law polices the lawless.
III. The Greatest Overflow (vv. 39-40)
In a masterful stroke, Jesus then brings in Leviticus 19:18. Love for God, when it is in place, will translate into love for neighbor. It is a telling connection. It is the first and last link in the chain. When there is love for God, there will be love for neighbor. It is also true the other way around: if there is no love for neighbor, we have to assume that there is no love for God.
We referred to it, in part, already: 1 John 4:19-21. Listen to the whole sentence, “We love, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.”
What does it means to love our neighbor as ourselves? This is largely unexplained in this passage, but the direct opposite is most certainly lived out—they are not loving their neighbor Jesus; they are trying to humiliate him in a feeble attempt to make themselves look better.
The cross-reference to this same question-and-answer session in Luke 10 shows another wiggle the Pharisee tries to make. “But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). The Pharisee was not about to disregard publically Leviticus 19:18, but he was more than happy to redefine the terms so as to create a loophole. The Pharisees had neatly defined neighbor as: a Jew who obeyed the Mosaic Law. But Jesus famously launches into his parable of the Good Samaritan who is the better neighbor than the Jew, the Levite, and the priest because he loved the one in need.
What neighbor-love looks like, specifically, is left for us to wrestle with inside our culture, but it is an overflow of love for God. When we love God entirely and know ourselves properly (which flows out of our relationship with God), we will champion the dignity of our neighbors as an expression of devotion to the One in whose image they were created. Love of neighbor is a necessary overflow of love for God. Love for neighbor without love for God is not technically love; but altruism. It will fill a belly, but it does not embody the full extent of this verse or the full expression of our calling to follow Christ.
Love is not a luxury; it is a necessity, and a great privilege. We get to love God! Far beyond duty. Far beyond Law. We have been set free from sin, regenerated from the inside out, so that love is possible, and normal, and contagious.
I would like to suggest a major application for this third “great”—the Great Commandment. Get to know your neighbor—inside AND outside the church. You cannot know all your neighbors, but the directive is singular—one at a time. Love your God so completely that loving your neighbor is natural. Start somewhere. One great place to start is to take this summer to build relationships with your neighbors inside and outside this church. Have a barbeque. Throw a Frisbee. Cut the grass of a neighbor who has gone on vacation. What happens here on Sunday mornings is at best one fourth of the ministry here at Tucker Street Church. Sunday morning is only the entry level—an important level, but only the first. Step out of the doorway and into the highways and byways where life is shared and where love is expressed for God and others.