About five thousand years ago, God came down, went to the Germanic peoples and said, “I have Commandments that will help you live better lives.” The Germanic peoples ask, “What are Commandments?” And the Lord says, “Rules for living.” “Can you give us an example?” God says, “Thou shalt not kill.” “Not kill? We’re not interested.”
So God went to the people of the Mediterranean and said, “I have Commandments…” They wanted an example and the Lord said, “Thou shalt not steal.” “Not steal? We’re not interested.”
Next the Lord went to the people who were living in Gaul, later known as France saying, “I have Commandments…” The French wanted an example and the Lord said, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” And the French were not interested.
God then went to the Jews and said, “I have Commandments…” “Commandments,” said the Jews, “How much are they?” “They’re free.” “We’ll take 10.”
You probably knew that the Constitution of the United States started off with only 7 articles and 21 sections that took up only four handwritten pages including signatures! 4 pages! But to that we added 27 amendments. Today, the United States Code, which is all of the laws in this country, fills up around 80 volumes of books, nearly 800,000 pages. All these pages are filled with laws trying to clarify all the situations that come up in life.
I suppose in like manner God gave the Israelites something simple to follow, the Ten Commandments, just ten simple rules to follow, nothing complex about it. But then to make things more clear for all kinds of situations they ended up with 613 separate commandments, moral, religious, dietary, and civil. There were 365 negative, that is the ‘don’t do this’ type of law and 248 positive, that is the ‘you need to do this’ law. The laws were also divided into heavy and light. The heavy ones were thought to be absolutely binding and the light ones weren’t quite so important. There had never been total agreement as to which laws were heavy and which ones were light. And the Rabbis and Scribes spent many hours debating which ones were heavy or light.
In our gospel reading today the religious leaders had been trying to trap Jesus all day long. He had been challenging their power and authority and he had to be stopped and discredited. He was too powerful and the crowds needed to be shown that they, the religious leaders, were in charge, not Jesus. Therefore Jesus had to be discredited. And what better way to discredit Jesus than to ask him what was the greatest commandment because with any answer he gave them, they could argue with him about it. Only once Jesus gave the answer they couldn’t argue with him. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. In other words, love God with your entire being. And then love your neighbor as you love yourself. Once again Jesus had come out on top. Jesus had boiled 613 commandments down to two. Love God and love your neighbor.
But what does that mean exactly? Love is one of those words that has all kinds of meanings today. A man might say “I love my wife”; he could also say, “I love to play golf.” One could say, “I love pumpkin pie.” Clearly the meaning of love is a bit different in each instance. A seminary professor told of a young couple who wanted to write their own wedding vows. Instead of vowing to stay together “until death us do part,” they wanted to say, “For as long as our love shall last.” The professor noted, “By mistaking feelings for love would mean that they would divorce following their first real argument.” You see, if we allow our culture’s definitions of “love” to define what Jesus meant; then surely we will miss his point. It is neither lust nor affection nor any other emotion that is at the heart of our faith. So if that is the case, what did Jesus mean when he said that we are to love God and neighbor?
The Hebrew word for love in the Scripture that Jesus is quoting is Aheb. It refers primarily to an act of mind and will, the determined care for the welfare of something or someone. It might include strong emotion, but its distinguishing characteristics are dedication and commitment of choice. “Love,” as Jesus uses it here, is a call to commit one’s self fully and concretely to both God and neighbor.
Corrie Ten Boom once related the story of an old Russian woman who had had multiple sclerosis. The disease had twisted her body almost beyond recognition. The simplest tasks had become almost impossible for her. Corrie visited her at night, using the cover of darkness to escape detection by the Lithuanian Communist authorities. When Corrie would kiss the woman’s wrinkled cheek she could respond only by rolling her eyes and smiling because the muscles in her neck would no longer allow her to move her head. The only part of her body she could still control was her right hand.
Every morning the woman’s husband propped her into a sitting position on the sofa. A battered old typewriter was placed on a little table in front of her. Every day the woman would begin to type. She could only use her index finger of her right hand to peck out the letters. This woman served God by translating Christian books from English into Russian. It was slow going–sometimes only typing a page or two a day but this was her way of loving God. The woman’s attitude was extraordinary. She saw her sickness as a prerequisite, not a detriment, for the work she did. Every other Christian in the city was watched by the secret police. But because she had been sick for so long the police took no interest in her, and she could work undetected spreading the good news of Jesus to a people who were starving for good news.
This is an example of loving God. People today in our society tend to make the same mistake about loving God that they make about loving a spouse or a neighbor. They confuse love with a feeling. Feelings are important, of course, but love for God is, first of all, a commitment.
Genuine love of the Lord is an act of our will; it is intelligent, feeling, willing, and serving. It involves thought, sensitivity, and intent. God does not desire empty words or empty ritual. His desire is for the person not simply for what we have. The fact is, if He truly has the person, he inevitably has all that the person possesses as well.
God loves us with his whole being; we see God’s love for us through the life of Jesus, through the death and sacrifice of Jesus, and we are to love God in return with our whole being. In fact, it is that understanding of how much God does love us that we are even able to love God in return. But we learn here that God requires more than just belief in his existence. A person is not a Christian simply because he affirms that he believes in God. The distinguishing mark of Christianity is loving God.
You see the question this lawyer asked Jesus is important for us too. What is the most important thing? What do we really need to do in our life? What do we really need to get right in our life? How do you know whether or not you are really a Christian? The answer is do you love God? Not simply do you have warm feelings about God but have you committed yourself to God? Jesus tells his disciples that if they love him, they will keep his commandments. Loving Jesus, loving God is not simply a feeling it is a commitment. It becomes a way of life. And we see that way of life acted out through how we treat those around us. Scripture says that if anyone says, “I love God” and hates his brother, that person is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
So let us once again reexamine our lives, our commitment to God and love him with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our souls and let us continue to work at loving our neighbors as ourselves.