The greatest commandment

Read today's gospel scripture Matthew 22: 34-46

PLEASE NOTE: This homily contains direct and indirect references to the Gospel passage. Having it fresh in your mind will be helpful for understanding and reflection.

Listen to this homily

I bet you might not know this but how many commandments do you think there are in the Old Testament? Hint: I’m not just talking about the Ten Commandments. By Old Testament, I’m referring more specifically to the first five books of the Old Testament. That’s the Torah, the Teachings for the people of Jesus’ time and for Jews today. It was the main part of the scripture in Jesus day. We also call it the Law but probably a more accurate translation is The Teachings.


I’m told that there are 365 negative commands, “do not kill”, for example. And 248 positive ones that advise us what we should be doing.  That’s a total of 613 commands in the Holy Scripture of Jesus’ day.


I didn’t know that until a couple of years ago.


So, the question by the Sadducees to Jesus was even more tricky than we’d think. The question was more like …”Of the 613 commands given in the Torah, which single one is the most important”?


Canon Frank Logue, [now Bishop] from the US Episcopal Church, tells us in his commentary that:


… [T]his is not a casual conversation among colleagues. Matthew reminds us that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the priests who served at the Temple in Jerusalem. They asked their thorniest question about the Torah, and Jesus aced that test. Now it is the Pharisees’ turn. We use the term Pharisee today as a term of derision; we say someone is pharisaical if he or she is hypocritical or self-righteous. But this would not have been true during Jesus’ ministry.


The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism, which worked as a social movement seeking to change society with a greater faithfulness to following the Torah. The Pharisees championed synagogue worship in addition to going to the Temple. Jesus taught faithfulness to God and worshipped in the synagogue. Many persons would likely have seen Jesus as a Pharisee or at least being in line with the Pharisees’ school of thought. So this debate is a bit of an in-house argument.


Jesus’ own question to the Pharisees brought no response.


To the earlier question from the Sadducees, Jesus responds with the simplest answer that he gave anywhere in all of his teachings. He answered, “‘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.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


In the traditional language of the BCP, we say that as part of the liturgy in the Eucharist.


But back to that word “love” and back to the concept of love. “Love is a many splendoured thing,” the words of an old romantic song goes. But that’s just it. That’s a romantic version of love. Jesus was talking about a more profound kind of love. Loving God isn’t really a romantic kind of thing, is it?


In Greek --the language of the New Testament-- there are four types of love: family love, friendship, romance, and unconditional love which is difficult to translate, it would seem. In Greek the fourth one is “agape”.


That is the kind of love about which Jesus was speaking--unconditional love.


C.S. Lewis wrote a book, now a classic, called “The Four Loves”. He recognized “agape” as the greatest of the four loves, and sees it as a specifically Christian virtue to achieve. He also called it “God-love”.


You can think about it more simply the way St Paul describes it in his First Letter to the Corinthians.  It’s a passage you’ve heard many times, I’m sure.


Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.


Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.


You know that passage. It is so beautiful, peaceful, and calming. That’s how it makes me feel. And it points the way to understanding the depth of love about which Jesus was speaking when he replied to the Pharisees. It touches on the depth of what the love of God entails. It also informs us about the second part of his response that day. The second is like unto it: “thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself”, in the language of the BCP.


That’s the kind of love Jesus calls us to practise as his followers. Love your neighbour no matter what.


The thing is that that kind of love is, first of all, the love that God extends to each of us no matter what… no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how we’ve stumbled. It’s unconditional. You and I are loved … no matter what.


And that’s the model for us about how to love.


So of those 613 commandments in the Torah, what is the greatest commandment?


“‘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.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”


It’s a simple but profound instruction. Think about how it could change the world. It’s really quite a revolutionary statement when you contemplate it… and if it were put into practice throughout our world, it would turn the world upside down. I think that’s what Jesus means.


So, I leave that for you to ponder and I invite you into a prayer that I would like to offer. The prayer is by Debbie McDaniel. Let us prayer.


Dear God,

Thank you that you are a loving, gracious God. Thank you that you’ve offered us forgiveness and the gift of new life in you. Thank you that your love that never fails, and from which nothing can separate us.


We pray that our lives would be filled and overflowing with the power of your love so we can make a difference in this world and bring honour to you. We ask for your help in reminding us that the most important things are not what we do outwardly, it’s not based on any talent or gift, but the most significant thing we can do in this life is simply to love you and to choose to love others.


Lord thank you that your love is patient. Help us show patience with those around us.


Lord thank you that your love is kind. Help us to extend kindness to others.


Lord thank you that true love is not jealous. Help us cast aside feelings of jealousy or hatred towards others.


Lord thank you that your love does not brag and is not arrogant. Help us not to live with pride or arrogance, but to choose to walk with humility and grace.


Lord thank you that true love does not act unbecomingly. Lord help us to extend kindness instead of rudeness towards others. Help us to lay aside the critical tone and tearing down with our words, so that we can truly walk in peace.


Lord thank you that true love does not seek its own. Lord help us not to live selfishly, looking only to our own interests.


Lord thank you that true love is not provoked. Lord help us not to become easily angered. Help us not to be so quickly reactive, but instead slow to speak and slow to become angry.


Lord thank you that your love does not take into account a wrong suffered. Lord help us not to hold grudges, but to choose to forgive, even when it’s difficult.


Lord thank you that your love does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. Lord help us to love your words of truth, may we walk in your freedom and wisdom. Let it be what drives our lives and choices every day.


Lord thank you that your love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, thank you that your love never fails.


Help us to love as you love. Fill us with your Spirit so that we can choose what is best. We are weak Lord, but we know also, that even when we are weak, you are strong within us. Thank you that it’s not all up to us. Thank you that you equip us to face each day with the power of your love, your forgiveness, and your grace.


We love you Lord, and we need you today, and every day.


In Jesus’ name, we pray.



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