The Pharisee asked; “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” (Matthew 22:35-36)
Jesus answered; “You shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment.” (Matthew 22:37-38)
Why is this the one that Jesus picked? Why is this commandment the greatest? Why is it absolutely essential that we make the love of God the foundation of our identity and the motivation behind all our actions?
First reason Jesus picked this one: because of the historical precedent. The Law itself proclaims this to be the the most important. In Deuteronomy, Moses writes;
“Now this is the commandment … You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:1a & 5)
Of course, this wasn’t just Moses saying this; he had been given this teaching during one of his encounters with God on Mt. Sinai (he got more than just the “Ten Commandments”!). An amazing thing about this is that it was Christ Himself that gave Moses this and the rest of The Law on Mt. Sinai!
[The Law] was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Galatians 3:19b)
Nor was He alone; Christ was surrounded by “myriads of angels” (Deuteronomy 33:2; see also Psalm 67:18). We can see the giving of the Law on Sinai less as an isolated voice teaching Moses and more as a long session where the pre-incarnate Christ and the angels that go with Him (His “Divine Council”) and instruct him.
So this is the first point: Christ our God gave Moses this Law on Mt. Sinai; then fifteen-hundred some-odd years late, Christ our God – now incarnate as Jesus – reaffirmed the significance of this Commandment to a man who was part of the nation and of a profession that had dedicated to preserving the Law. The irony is that they had kept the letter of the Law, but had forgotten what it meant.
Second reason Jesus picked this one: it patterns our lives and communities and is the key to human flourishing.
“Now this is the commandment, and these are the statutes and judgments which the Lord your God has commanded to teach you, that you may observe them in the land which you are crossing over to possess, that you may fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments which I command you, you and your son and your grandson, all the days of your life, and that your days may be prolonged. Therefore hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe it, that it may be well with you, and that you may multiply greatly as the Lord God of your fathers has promised you—‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
These words – this Commandment to “Love God” – are important enough to be the center of all our conversations and daily habits. In this way, this commandment moves from our words and actions into our hearts and minds; and from our hearts and minds it becomes the strength with which we act in this world.
How can a Command to “Love God” do anything useful? How can it become the pattern of our conversations and habits? Because love requires action; and when we love God we are committing ourselves to a life in service to something greater than ourselves. When we give ourselves over to loving God, we are not promising to fostering an emotion; we are committing ourselves to the pursuit of infinite virtue; of continual striving; of continual sacrifice; to the kind of life that is guaranteed to make us better men and women guaranteed to make our families and communities flourish.
Everyone needs a goal; without it there is no way to tell an opportunity from a temptation; there is no way to organize our effort. The words “lazy” and “hard working” have no real meaning to a man that has no goal in life. But once a man has a goal, his life has an order to it; he can distinguish between the things that are useful and the things that are not. Any goal will do this, but not all goals do this in a way that brings health and growth.
According to the God who made and cares for us; the goal of every human beings should be:
to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind.
It is love – not emotional love, but the hard-working kind that seeks to manifest The Good in every moment – that allows us to distinguish between temptations and opportunities. This is why Christ says that everything else – the Laws and the prophets (and all of Orthodoxy) – flows naturally and automatically from this one commandment.
Reason number three: Jesus picked this one because he wanted us to love one another – and ourselves- properly.
Many well-meaning people want to skip the love of God and go straight to the love of neighbor.
More harm was done in the 20th century by men committed to the love of man – minus the love of God – than anything else. The atrocities of Communism are testimony to the fact that you cannot truly serve mankind without the kind of virtue and morality that comes from the love of God.
You may respond that there is little scarier than one who claims to know what God wants in your life. You cannot love something without learning to know it; the Lord says that He desires mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than all of our burnt offerings.
When someone uses the God card – or the Jesus Stick – to manipulate or do evil work, they are committing blasphemy, the greatest offense agains the order of things and the most terrible vice. People who insist on getting this wrong have showed themselves to be the greatest enemy of mankind in the early 21st century.
Loving God means, in part, means loving ourselves as His children made in His image; but it also leads to a humility regarding our own intellectual capabilities and instincts. It leads us to seek discernment not from our emotions or from our Facebook newsfeed, but from the community of virtuous men and women throughout the ages that is called the “The Church”.
The commitment to love God and to pattern our lives according to that love gives us a purpose that provides order and direction to our lives. It transforms us into more resilient and joyful human beings. Finally, because it requires us to love our neighbors and ourselves as God Himself loves us, it is leads to healthier communities and draws all of us deeper into His grace.
In this episode, Fr. Anthony describes (and acts out, although you’ll just have to imagine that) the Gospel in terms of the breaking down of the wall we have built up between us, Him, and our inheritance. Enjoy the show! Check out this episode!