The Greatest Commandments

While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

The Greatest Commandments


Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Matthew 22:34-46

Our lessons from the lectionary these past weeks include a series of challenging questions posed to Jesus.

Matthew presents today’s as the last one, not only because it can be called the most significant, but because Jesus ends it by posing a return question which his challengers can’t answer, so they stop challenging him.

In 2018, after the bombing of a Synagogue in Philadelphia, Lori and I went to a Sabbath service at Beit Tikvah, an orthodox synagogue in this neighbourhood. After the service we chatted with the man who had been our guide and we got into a discussion about this very passage.

He became excited as he identified the first part as the Shema Yisrael, a prayer that is to be recited twice a day by adults and at bedtime for children. There are records of people who have died with these as their last words, going back to the time of Roman persecution to this century when an Israeli soldier shouted out these words as he threw himself on a live hand grenade, saving his companions at the cost of his own life.

This is something that would have been part of Jesus’ upbringing as a daily embodiment of a commandment that defined what it meant to be Jewish:

Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one” — Deuteronomy 6:4

And Jesus continued with the next verse:

and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart

and mind and soul and strength”

[There’s a little bit of First Century Greek translation there: the Hebrew original didn’t have a separate word for mind, heart and soul; but the Greeks believed there was a distinction, so in Greek “mind” is added.]

So Jesus took the Shema and stated explicitly what was often understood implicitly: he included the meaning of what followed.

What Jesus did there would have satisfied his hearers very well. There would be no one who would object to his statement that this was the most important commandment: after all, it’s so central that they were instructed to pray it twice a day for their whole adult lives —

write it on the doorposts, bind it to their hands and foreheads.

The second commandment, though, sets Jesus apart. We read where he got it: in the book of Leviticus.

It is the last phrase in a longer passage that deals with how we are to treat each other; a passage that calls for unbiased justice, that emphasizes a peaceable and loving relationship. The commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves looks like it is supposed to be a summary of all the parts that come before.

When our guide at the synagogue heard that Jesus had said that this was the second most important commandment, it didn’t make any sense to him.

He understood this passage to be amongst the commandments that were, for lack of a better word, aspirational: something to try for, of course; part of the ideal to which God calls us, but not a central commandment; less important than the 10 commandments and

certainly not as vital as the Shema.

I have no doubt our guide’s interpretation would have been shared by the majority of Jesus’ hearers. Jesus was declaring a particular position here that set him apart from other teachers. He was declaring that his understanding of Judaism would focus in this manner: the law of love as the Apostle Paul would later name it.

It’s a challenging position to take. Of course, with a traditional understanding of commandments, it is possible to have different interpretations. Seminaries would be very boring places if it weren’t possible to argue about fine points and possible interpretations.
But at base, commandments are rules; it should be possible to measure them and to know if you have broken them or not.

But love: well, love is a living thing; it can’t be measured by a set of rules but rather by the well-being of another. It is about relationship, not about legalities.

What Jesus did here was to establish himself as a teacher who was pointing to a new interpretation of the law; embracing a way of fulfilling the law that demanded a personal relationship, first with God and then with those around us, but in all cases drawing us beyond our own needs and wants, requiring us to look outside ourselves.

It’s almost like a definition of the opposite of narcissism. Jesus is telling us that God wants us to live for God and for others, not by adherence to rules but by paying attention, by caring, by noticing what is needed even when that includes setting boundaries, as we can see from our Leviticus reading.

It’s complex. It’s a call to develop people skills ahead of legal skills.

We haven’t always gotten it right. The church has created elaborate rules about our faith; creeds you have to embrace or be burned at the stake; days when you have to do this or avoid doing that; things you have to wear to church or NEVER wear to church.

Some of those things we’ve relaxed over time and some of those we’ve overturned violently. And as these things were happening it might be fair to ask: Where was the love when people were being oppressed, even burned at the stake? And where was the love when they were being violently liberated?

The way Jesus has called us to be with God is based in the laws of Moses and shaped by Jesus’ particular interpretation: and it’s challenging.

Rules seem easy; we like checklists and reference charts and even as the rules get more complex they can still seem safer than the uncharted waters of love.

But it is love to which we are called: To love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Lists won’t work. Rules can point us to the basics but we can’t stop there. To truly follow our calling we have to truly love.

What Jesus has done is to free us from the law by giving us the most challenging calling of all: to love.

May God, whose perfect love casts out all fear, show us how to be the loving people we are called to become.


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