The greatest commandment
When Christians think of the two great commandments, we often without thinking rank the first above the second. We see love for God as more important than love for our neighbour. After all, isn’t God more important than other humans? We are saved by faith in God, and not by loving others right? Loving others is something nice that we ought to do, but our eternal salvation doesn’t stand or fall on it, whereas it does on our love for God. That is generally the reasoning. And so we turn the list of two commandments into an ordered list, where the first is of primary importance and the second is of secondary importance.
However this does not seem an accurate reflection of early Christian use of those commandments. Christians today often take for granted that those two commandments were original to Jesus in the sense that he was asked by people who wanted to know what the greatest commandments were and he ranked those two commandments in order as a list given by God incarnate.
However, Jewish writings from the period show that it was an accepted Jewish religious truth that these were the two greatest commandments. The gospels reflect this – some depicting the commandments in Jesus’ mouth and others put them in the mouth of a Pharisee in answer to Jesus’ question. In other words this saying was not original to Jesus – he was repeating a common Jewish saying.
The interesting thing to look at then, is what new use he made of it. How did Jesus and the early Christians change or modify the existing Jewish truism? Which of the two commandments did they stress, emphasise or extend and which did they downplay?
In Luke, Jesus expands on the second commandment – enlarging it to cover love for all humanity and not merely one’s own race (which was the way most Jews understood it). In 1 John, both commandments appear and the second is stressed while the first is downplayed in favour of the second. We are told that what we have been commanded from the beginning is to love one another. We are told that love of God is to obey his commandment and that his commandment is to love one another. Hence by obeying the second we also obey the first (making the first subservient to the second). We are told that whoever loves his brother knows God for God is love and God dwells in them if they are loving.
If we look at Jesus’ ministry we see him campaigning against the religious leaders who were extremely zealous for God. He attacked them on the grounds that they mistreated the poor and suffering. He was challenging those who loved God because they did not love their neighbours. He threatened them with hell because they did not care for the suffering enough. In other words he threatened with hell the very people who thought they were assured of heaven because of their religion and love for God.
So we see that far from valuing the first commandment over the second, the early Christians turned it around and emphasised the second commandment over the first. Love for God was of less importance than love for others, God’s judgment would be based on how we treated others (Mat 25).
One of Jesus’ parables was about a man who had two sons, whom he asked to do something for him. One son refused and then did it, the other agreed to do it but did not. In Jesus’ society, it was of extreme importance to uphold your family honour. Part of this was a son’s public obedience to his father, so if a father asked a son to do something the son was obliged to announce his intention to obey his father’s will (regardless of whether he subsequently obeyed or not). To flatly refuse to do a father’s will was the height of disrespect and dishonour, and any father would prefer a son who agreed to obey but did not over the son who insultingly refused and caused a public loss of honour and then obeyed. This very story may well have been regularly used to teach honourable behaviour. The moral of the story would have been that the son who publicly honoured his father would have been the better son.
Jesus turns this around and says that God prefers the one who says no and then obeys. In other words, God prefers the person who dishonours him and insults him but does his will to the person who praises and glorifies him but does not do his will. That is a strong statement, but little different to what some of the prophets had said hundreds of years earlier when they criticised an Israel for worshipping God with their mouths and sacrifices but not caring for the poor or giving justice to the oppressed. Jesus is once again saying that God values action over religion. A similar point is made in James 1:27 where he says what God considers pure and faultless religions is to care for those in need and not be corrupted by the world.
Yet today evangelicals think that God values religion over action. We are saved by faith in Christ and our actions are just good works. In this way today’s church seems very much like the Jews of the time of Jesus, it needs the same critiques given for the same reasons. If that is true, we need to be worried, because Jesus didn’t pull any punches. To the Pharisees who were famous for evangelism he said “you go 10,000 miles to make a convert, and when you do you make him even more deserving of hell than you”. Those were harsh words to those religious people who were doing their best to save others! Yet who do Jesus’ words remind us of today? Evangelicals are famed for going to the ends of the earth to make converts. We better be careful then that we are not making them more deserving of hell! Yet we tell them that love for other people isn’t that important and what really matters is subscribing to our religion – if they become Christian, we say, they will be saved. That sounds a lot like the Pharisees who saved people by getting them to follow Israel’s God, and it sounds like the reason Jesus was attacking the Pharisees applies equally to evangelicals - we downplay love for others in favour of religion and the importance of believing in the right God.