One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:35-40 (NLT)
We don’t know what prompted the question put to Jesus that day. As he recounts this event, Mark’s gospel presents the questioner as a sincere seeker after truth. Matthew, however, is more suspicious, picturing this questioner as one of those who followed Jesus around, asking questions, and trying to trip him up, get him into trouble. After all, no part of the law was supposed to be more important than any other part, so maybe in asking this question he was a trouble maker. We just don’t know. What we do know is that Jesus’ answer to his question is the most important in all the pages of Scripture.
“Which commandment is greatest?” the man asked. Jesus said, “’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.’” Then he added, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Do you know what he was saying? The law and the prophets were the only sections of the Bible recognized as Scripture during Jesus’ lifetime, so Jesus was saying that these two commandments summarize the whole Bible!
Of course, we know that everything starts with God’s love for us, expressed in so many ways, but especially in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are able to love only because God first loved us. We are able to give only that which we have, so once we have received God’s love, we have something we can pass along. We are able to respond to God’s love by loving God with our whole being, by loving ourselves in a healthy, life-giving way, and then loving others as well.
When we understand it, that’s what life is all about. Life is about relationships. And life is either good or less than good depending upon the quality of those relationships. It’s threefold: life is about my relationship with God, my relationship with myself, and my relationship with others. That’s life – that’s the main thing! I saw a poster once that said, “The main thing in life is to make the main thing the main thing.” Well, this is the main thing – relationships: relationships with God, with ourselves, and with others. If you want your life to be good, if you want your life to be fulfilling, if you want your life to count for something special, you start there, with right relationships, because relationships are the main thing!
When Jesus said that we are to love God, he was quoting from the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy, probably the most important passage in the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. The Jewish people were the first monotheists in the history of the world. All other religions were polytheistic, believing in many gods. But not Judaism! The passage from Deuteronomy begins, “Shema Yisrael! Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one!” That affirmation sounded in the ancient world like the blast of a mighty trumpet. One God! Only one God! The passage continues, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In other words, our love for God must be with our whole being. Our relationship with God must not be simply a pleasant additive to life, a desirable extra, something tacked on to the periphery of life. No! It must be dead center. It must be what life is all about. We are to love God with all we are and with all we have. We are to love God with all our being!
I’m fascinated by the fact that when Jesus quoted this passage from his Bible, he changed it, added something to it. Have you ever noticed that Jesus added that, in addition to loving God with all our heart and with all our soul, we are also to love God with all our mind? That’s not in Deuteronomy. Jesus added that. Those of you who know me well know how tempted I am to spend a lot of time on this emphasis. I am proud to be part of the Wesleyan tradition that does not ask us to put aside our minds, to park our brains outside the church. We understand that there is no needed battle between faith and reason. As Charles Wesley once pleaded, “Let us unite the two so long divided, knowledge and vital piety.” We are to love God with all our mind, Jesus said. I like that. But, sadly, that emphasis must await another sermon.
What does it mean to love God with all our being? In both these passages, the word “love” is not about sentiment. It’s not about how you feel. No, it’s about what you value above all else. It’s about what you decide to do as a result of what you value.
So, to love God is to place God above all else in life. God must be first in all things for us. We are to affirm God, to be with God in prayer, and to serve God in obedience. That affirmation is sounded again and again throughout Scripture. The first commandment requires it: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Jesus made it the primary focus of his teaching. He called it “the Kingdom of God” and he talked about it more than anything else. And, of course, what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God is that God, and God’s will, takes precedence above all else. God comes first! Clearly, that’s what Jesus meant in today’s passage: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
I’ve said it repeatedly in preaching and teaching: The entire world is designed to function in a God centered way. God is to be at the center, with everything else in life receiving its meaning and direction from that vital center. Put anyone or anything else at the center and it all goes wrong.
Can I say it any more clearly than that? God first. God at the center. And our most earnest prayer being, “Not my will, but your will be done.” That’s what it means to love God with all our being. That’s the main thing.
All good Jews in the ancient world would agree with that. It was foundational for them when they were at their best. But, as much as Jesus affirmed that, he did not stop with that. More than any person up to that time in history, Jesus insisted upon linking our love for God with our love for others. What made sense to Jesus is that if you really love God, you will also love all those whom God loves – and that means everyone! After affirming our love for God as the first and great commandment, Jesus added a quote from the 19th chapter of Leviticus. He said, “A second (commandment) is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” It’s instructive that Jesus did not say, “Love your neighbor instead of yourself.” No, he said, “As you love yourself.” Psychologists agree that we are incapable of loving others until we have learned to love ourselves in a healthy way. So, we are to love others as we love ourselves, and that is, as God has loved us.
Well, that completes it, doesn’t it? When we have experienced God’s love for us and have received that love by faith, the resulting life of faith requires that we love God, we love ourselves, and we love others.
And, that’s what got Jesus into trouble, that part about loving others. For some reason, throughout history, people of faith have thought that we can separate our relationship with God from our relationship with others. They have thought that we can pick and choose those whom we will love. We will love those we like, those we feel good about, those we approve of. Forget about the others. We will love the worthies, reject the unworthies. Where did we ever get that idea? Certainly not from Jesus. In fact, Jesus said, “So, you love those who love you, do you? You love those who are easy to love, do you? So what! That’s easy. Everyone does that. Even pagans do that. What are you doing more than others?” Do you understand? Jesus loved everyone. O, he didn’t like everyone. He didn’t feel good about everyone. He didn’t approve of the behavior of everyone. But Jesus loved everyone. And that got him into trouble.
Jesus loved rich and poor, old and young, male and female, well and sick, Jew, Samaritan, Roman, Gentile. He loved thieves, prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers. Sinners all. And the righteous people spat out their condemnation, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” And they were right. He did. As someone has said, “Jesus never lost his taste for bad company.” And I sure am glad, because I am one of them.
What did Jesus mean when he talked abut loving others? Well, clearly, to love someone goes well beyond feeling good about them or approving of their behavior. No, that’s not what loving is about. To love as Jesus loved is to value a person as a child of God. Listen now, I’m about to say something important: the value of a person has nothing whatsoever to do with their behavior. Every person is of infinite worth simply because every person is a child of God, one for whom Jesus has died, and they are to be loved for that reason, and for that reason alone. So, we are to value others. We are to want what is best for them. And, in every way within our power, we are to do what is best for them. It’s not about feelings. Mature, Christian loving is an act of the will, no matter how we feel at a given moment. We decide to love others because they are children of God and because God loves them. And because, as one Christian put it, “We may never be any closer to God than we are to those we love least.”
That is what grace is all about. God gives us His grace not because He always feels good about us or approves of our behavior. No, God gives us His grace because we are His children and because we need it so much. So, God gives us His grace and we pass it on by loving ourselves and loving others in the same way He loves us. And, here is the remarkable thing: the more we act lovingly towards others, no matter how we feel, the better chance we have to begin to feel good about them. I remember something Anton Lang once said. Anton Lang played the part of Jesus in the Oberammergau Passion Play. He said, “You have no idea how much I have come to love these men as I have washed their feet night after night.” Do you hear it? Not, I love them, therefore I wash their feet. No, I wash their feet and as a result I begin to love them.
Jesus gave us the definitive example of how to love. At the Last Supper he washed the disciples’ feet and gave us an example of servant love. The next day, he went to the cross and gave us an example of suffering love. From the cross, he looked out at those who had rejected him, denied him, abandoned him, crucified him – he looked out at them and he loved them. He even prayed for them. And, if we are to keep company with Jesus, we are to love like that. We are to love as Jesus loved. We are to love everyone – valuing them, wanting what is best for them, and whenever we can, doing what is best for them, even at great cost to ourselves.
I have said that these words of Jesus, about loving God, loving ourselves, and loving others, tell us what is the main thing in life. Now, what are we to do with all that? If we think Christianity is about doing “religious things” out there on the periphery of life, if we think it is enough to come to worship, read the Bible, think about it, talk about it, then go home and eat fried chicken, without that Scripture making a profound difference in the way we live our lives – if we think that, then we have not just missed the main thing, we have missed the whole thing! We have parted company with Jesus, and we have joined that company of people who want God to save us without bothering us!
In the scripture from Deuteronomy, after we are told to love God with all our being, just listen to what it says: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as a frontlet on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Wow!
Do you understand? This Scripture is why faithful Jews affix a mezuzah at the entrance of their house or apartment and touch it every time they enter or leave. It is why orthodox Jews, when they pray, put phylacteries on their arms and foreheads. The mezuzahs and phylacteries all contain copies of Deuteronomy 6:4 – the commandment to love God with all our being – and of the instructions to post it at the entrance of their homes and to bind it on their arms and foreheads. It’s as if to say, keep this as close to you as you possibly can. Remember it every moment of every day. Make it a part of you, because this is the main thing in life.
Just listen to this continuing emphasis in Scripture. When Ezekiel and when John of Revelation were called by God to prophesy to the people, before they spoke to the people, they were instructed to eat the scrolls given to them by God. Before they spoke to the people, God’s word had to become a part of them. Swallow the scroll! Not God out there – God in here – speaking His word through those in whom He lives.
And Jesus, when he gave us the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, said “This is my body. Eat it. This is my blood. Drink it.” In other words, Christ is not only present out there. He must be allowed to be present in here. He must become a part of us, shaping us, guiding us, empowering us, so that increasingly, as we live our lives, we reflect his presence, and we begin to look and sound like Jesus.
Do you hear it? Scripture is not to be read and discussed and then forgotten. Christianity is not something tacked on, a pleasant additive, an optional extra, but not making much of a difference in us. No. No. No! When it is real for us, our faith is who we are. It defines us. Not out there, but in here. Because God first loved us – with a rich, gracious, never failing love – because God first loved us like that, we are to love God with all our being, we are to love ourselves, and we are to love others, all others. Because that’s the main thing in life!
Let me underline it, like this. Peter Storey is a Christian pastor in South Africa. During the struggle over apartheid, he was an outspoken advocate for racial justice, racial inclusiveness. That was not a very popular stance there in those days. So, powerful people saw to it that he was deposed from his pulpit and removed from leadership in the church. But Peter Storey never wavered in his faith and he never compromised his conviction. His faith wouldn’t let him. As the years passed, the grace of Christ melted hard hearts, apartheid was abolished, and Storey returned to his pulpit and was restored to leadership, now not only in South Africa, but in the larger world.
Some time ago, he was invited to preach in the United States. In the course of his sermon he said, “In this country you have an expression that I never heard in South Africa. You talk about ‘inviting Jesus into your heart’. I had never heard that before, but I like it. So, I decided to do it. I invited Jesus into my heart. And, I thought I heard him say, ‘Certainly Peter, I will be happy to come into your heart, but of course, I’ll have to bring all my friends with me. And, if there is not room in your heart for all my friends, then there is not room in your heart for me either.’”
He’s right. It is a package deal, you know. You can’t have God without loving all those whom God loves, because God is love. “Invite Jesus into your heart” – we used to sing about that at camp. If you remember it, sing it along with me:
Into my heart, into my heart, come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Come in today. Come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.
Of course, today I have to add: “And bring your friends with you. Okay?!”
Because God first loved us, we are to love God, to love ourselves, and to love others. Don’t you ever forget that. Because that’s the main thing!
Prayer: God our Father, teach us about loving. Help us to experience the full extent of Your love for us, then help us to love You and ourselves and others, as Jesus did, in whose name we pray. Amen.