Loving God and loving neighbor are inseparable. We can love God and our neighbor because Jesus is the Messiah.
Catch up on the Story
This passage is the third of three questions that the religious leaders of Israel put to Jesus. The first question was about paying taxes to Caesar; the second was about the future resurrection. This final question, along with the previous two, are all attempts by the religious leaders to trap Jesus into saying something that will either get him in trouble with the political authorities or cause him to lose credibility with the people. These questions have come from both ends of the religious establishment. The Pharisees, who tended to lean more toward the revolutionary end and the Sadducees/Herodians, who favored a more pro-Roman stance, questioned Jesus. This final question comes from the Pharisees, who are delighted that Jesus has confounded the Sadducees in the previous section.
The text begins with Matthew noting that the Pharisees approach Jesus to test or trap him because they say that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. Literally, Jesus had “muzzled” the Sadducees with his response to the previous question. We will hear no more from the Sadducees in terms of questions. In fact, at the end of this chapter, the Pharisees will no longer attempt to trap Jesus in his teaching either.
One of the experts in the law approaches Jesus and asks him a question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The exact way the expert in the law asks this question is important. Poia in Greek is often translated as “what kind of?” in distinction from “which.” The distinction is important. The lawyer is not seeking to know which law is the greatest but rather what class of commandments deserves to be elevated above the rest (Bruner, 411). In other words, the lawyer wants to know the most comprehensive law and, thus, the most significant commandment.
Jesus responds that what is most important is to “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.” Here, Jesus combines two commandments from two different books of the Old Testament into one over-arching command. The first part of the command came from Deuteronomy 6:5 and was a particularly important command for Israel. Devout Jews would have prayed it every morning and evening of their lives.
This command to love God is the first and greatest command. But notice that this is not just a command to love an impersonal and distant God. Rather, Jesus situates this command amid Israel’s history. The command is to love the “Lord your God.” That is the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who brought you up out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched hand. It is a command to love God, who, out of his love and grace, did not destroy Israel when they rebelled at Mt. Sinai or when they refused to take possession of the Promised Land. The command to love the “Lord your God” is to respond to the great saving love that God has shown for Israel throughout the generations.
How are we to love this God who has first loved us? We are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and mind. At this point, I am not sure it helps us much to parse out different meanings for heart, soul, and mind. Jesus is trying to make the point that we are to love this God who first loved us with the entirety of our being. The Hebrew word for heart, lev, can be compared to what we would call our “center” (Kittle, Bromiley, and Friedrich, 606). Our love for God flows out from the core of who we are because God’s love for us has first transformed us. If we are honest with ourselves, this kind of total and systemic love for God is hard to achieve. Jesus will give us some help with this in a minute.
Jesus then places this command at the forefront of everything. This command to love God is the greatest and first command. Above anything else we might find in all of the law and the prophets, this command is the one that trumps everything. Jesus could stop here because, throughout the law and the prophets, God has given us plenty of examples of what it looks like to love God. Almost always, these commanded expressions of love for God find their foundation in God’s previous actions for Israel (and us). For example, Israel is commanded to care for the widow, orphan, and alien. Why? Because Israel were once widows, orphans, and aliens in a strange land, and God, in his love for Israel, cared and provided for them. God seeks nothing less than our imitation of him in his care for humanity.
Jesus moves on and gives the second part of this double command. This second command, to love our neighbors as ourselves, Jesus says, is just like the first. The “and a second is like it” is more than just Jesus’ way of creating a causal connection between the love of God and the love of neighbor. The Greek word for “like,” hominia, more fully means “equal to” and “of the same nature” (Kittle, Bromiley, and Friedrich, 186). In other words, loving our neighbor is equally important as loving God. We cannot love God without loving our neighbor.
At different times and places, the church has separated these two commands. If we honor the first command to love God with all of what we are but neglect the second command, we often fall into the trap of religious legalism. Love often gets worked out as keeping to a strict list of dos and don’ts. We read our bible and pray because that is what God wants. We
attend worship services regularly because that is what God would want. We don’t use foul language or watch entertainment that promotes immoral behavior. We don’t engage in premarital sex or extramarital sex because that would not be how we show love for God.
In the same way as concentrating on loving God without loving our neighbor is dangerous, loving our neighbor without loving God is also dangerous. When we concentrate too much on loving our neighbor, we tend to forget the individual moral aspects of Christianity. We think that as long as we care for our neighbor, we can engage in other acts that would displease God.
In combining these two commands, Jesus stresses the connection between God’s love for us and our subsequent love for our neighbors. We are compelled to love our neighbor because we have been loved first. Love for our neighbor is the best response to the love we have received.
Who is our neighbor, and how might we love him or her? Matthew, in this passage, does not give us a direct answer. But we have Jesus in other places, like Luke’s gospel, proclaiming that our neighbor is everyone. More specifically, our neighbors are those we walk by and come in contact with daily. The needs of our neighbors might vary from day to day. We must constantly ask ourselves what it looks like to love our neighbor.
At times, loving our neighbor looks like providing them with food, clothes, and water. It might mean providing comfort and support in times of loneliness or mourning. Sometimes, it might mean confronting our neighbors when they engage in wrongdoing. This command to love our neighbor comes from Leviticus 19:18 and includes the admonition to reprove our neighbor when they need it.
After Jesus gives us this double command to love God and our neighbor, he states that the entirety of the law and prophets hang on these two commands. Imagine, for a moment, that you have a coat rack mounted to your house’s entryway. There are two pegs on that coat rack. Maybe you have a heavy backpack you don’t want to touch the ground, so you use both pegs on the rack to support the bag. Jesus is saying that the two pegs on the coat rack are this double command to love God and neighbor. Together, they support the rest of the law and prophets. Another way to look at it is that the double command to love God and neighbor provides us a set of lenses that we are to use to view all of scripture. We must have both lenses in order to rightly see and interpret scripture. Using only one of the lenses, or perhaps shutting one eye, will yield a distorted view of scripture.
Verses 41-46 might seem to be disconnected from the preceding verses. I don’t want to concentrate much of our effort on this part of the passage. Historically, these two sections have been placed together in the lectionary. What is important in verses 41-46 is the implied claims that Jesus makes about his Messiahship. The Pharisees believe that the Christ, or the Messiah, will be a descendant of David. Jesus, in quoting Psalm 110, intends for the Pharisees to see that this Messiah, the son of David, will be much more than just a man. Bruner comments, “All Jesus is attempting to do is to pry open his hearers’ minds to the possibility that the future Messiah will be more than a son of David, more than even David’s glorious successor…”(Brunner, 425).
What ties these two sections together is the Messiahship question. If Jesus is the Messiah, then his double command to love God and neighbor becomes the legitimate authoritative way we must interpret all of the law and prophets. Because we live on this side of Jesus’ resurrection, we can confidently proclaim that yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the one we have been waiting for, and yes, his words and commands are right and true because they have been vindicated by the death defeating, death-defying power of the resurrection. Let us live confidently in the power of the resurrection by loving God and our neighbor as ourselves.
As the church, not just our local church, but the church in America and elsewhere, we often get caught up in an unhealthy discussion about what one must do or believe to be truly Christian. In American Evangelicalism, we often deny that others who do not practice Christianity or believe exactly the same as we do are not truly Christian. We have equated the love of God with right belief and have often failed to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This passage, however, calls to always discern how we hold our love for God together, which certainly means moral obedience, with our love for our neighbors. How might we express our love for God through our love for our neighbor?
I think two things are of paramount significance about this double love command. First, the command to love God and neighbor in equal and complimentary ways makes Christianity not just about our salvation. It makes it about our seeking the salvation, both physically and spiritually, of others. Christianity is not about us but our becoming conduits of God’s love and salvation for the world. Second, but equally important, it challenges us to read scripture in a Christocentric way. We must use this double love command as a lens through which to read scripture. As we read scripture, do our interpretations of the Old and New Testament violate our command to love God and neighbor?
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why would one of the Pharisees ask which commandment Jesus thought was the greatest or most important?
Read Deuteronomy 6:1-8 and Leviticus 19:18. How similar are these two Old Testament passages with the command that Jesus gives?
What kinds of things do we do to show our love for God?
What kinds of things do we do to show our love for our neighbor?
Jesus seems to say that we express our love for God through loving our neighbor. Why do you think Jesus is saying that? Reference 1 John 4:19-21 as you discuss this.
How does the church facilitate our love for God and neighbor? Is it possible to love God and neighbor without participating in the life of the church on an ongoing basis? Why or why not?
As a small group, how are you doing with showing love for each other?
Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28, Revised & enlarged edition (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2004).
Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, eds., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964).