Jesus answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments.
Matthew reports that “When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they came together, and one of them, a teacher of the Law, tried to trap him with a question. Teacher,” he asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
In all fairness I don’t know why Matthew would say this is a trap. It seems like a reasonable question to me, the kind of question people nowadays might certainly ask. When it comes to complicated subject matter, people always want to cut to the chase. They want to skip to the bottom line.
Jesus’ response has come to be known as “The Great Commandment.” The first part of the Great Commandment, the part about loving God, was deeply rooted in Jewish consciousness. It is part of what they call the Shema, the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism. As a Jew, Jesus would have recited this prayer morning and evening. The first part of the Shema includes these words from Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
“Israel, remember this! The Lord—and the Lord alone—is our God. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. Never forget these commands that I am giving you today. Teach them to your children. Repeat them when you are at home and when you are away, when you are resting and when you are working. Tie them on your arms and wear them on your foreheads as a reminder. Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.”
The second part of the Great Commandment comes from Leviticus 19:18 – “Do not take revenge on others or continue to hate them, but love your neighbors as you love yourself. I am the Lord.”
I never knew about the Shema until last year when our small group went through “The Jesus Creed,” a book and group study by Scot McKnight. This is what he has to say about the Great Commandment and its relationship to the Shema:
When an expert in the law asked Jesus for the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with the Shema, the ancient Jewish creed that commands Israel to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. But the next part of Jesus’ answer would change the course of history. Jesus amended the Shema, giving his followers a new creed for life: to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, but also to love others as themselves.
McKnight says that when Jesus responds to this question by amending the Shema in this way, that it becomes the defining, authoritative ideal that guides both his ministry and the ministries of his followers. It becomes, in effect, the Jesus Creed.
Everything about spiritual formation for Jesus is shaped by his version of the Shema. For Jesus, love of God and love of others is the core. Love, a term almost indefinable, is unconditional regard for a person that prompts and shapes behaviors in order to help that person become what God desires. Love, when working properly, is both emotion and will, affection and action.
We cannot overemphasize the importance of the Shema for Jewish spiritual formation. So when Jesus amended the Shema, we need to take note. To be sure, Jesus accepted the Shema, but he also added to it. The question we then ask is this: Is Jesus suggesting only a subtle amendment? No. It takes real pluck (or chutzpah) to add to the sacred Shema, but this addition reveals the heart of the Jesus Creed.
For the Jews, changing the Shema would be like adding something new to the Lord’s Prayer would be for Christians. It’s a very big thing. But that second part from Leviticus, the loving others part, is what Jesus said was missing from Jewish consciousness. The Jews understood that they must love God, but they didn’t accept that one of the most important ways that we show our love for God is to love that which he created. They didn’t really understand how important it is to God that we love one another. The best way Jesus could think of to get this across was to alter the Shema prayer which Jews repeated every morning and every night.
As part of the McKnight study we repeated this “Jesus Creed” several times a day as recommended. For all of us in that group it was a life changing experience. Some talked about how it comforted them. Others talked about how it calmed them down when they were angry or irritated. Others felt it brought them closer to God.
To me, the formulation of this Great Commandment, this Jesus Creed, is the pinnacle of his ministry. It defines, with laser-sharp clarity, the revolutionary aspect of his ministry. The part about loving each other was always there in the Torah, but the Jews never took it seriously. Jesus put the spotlight on this scripture, not just with this statement, but with every aspect of his ministry. Others might think that the crucifixion or the resurrection were the pinnacle events in his life’s work, but to me this “new Shema” is where Jesus makes his definitive statement about what his ministry’s all about. When he puts this forth everything falls into place.
What I cannot, for the life of me, understand is why the Great Commandment is not part of the liturgy of the church. Why aren’t these words repeated when we remember Jesus at the Communion table? Why aren’t these the first words that we teach our children to memorize in our Sunday Schools? Why aren’t we taught as adults to recite these worlds day and night as Jesus did?
I think there are three answers. First, as McKnight points out, the Shema was the most important Jewish prayer. It really was a defining tradition of the Jews. When the Christians and the Jews split, the Christians were most certainly uncomfortable with it, despite the fact that it was clearly very important to Jesus. So instead, they picked up on the Lord’s Prayer and developed their own creeds, like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed (neither of which mention love).
Second, people still don’t want to accept that love, not legalism, is what brings you closer to God. Loving God is pretty abstract; loving people is a lot more difficult. It’s important to note that the Great Commandment also appears in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, but not in the Gospel of John. Apparently John didn’t think it was important. Neither, apparently, did Christendom. Or maybe they didn’t think they could sell this message to the masses. Throughout the history of the church, laws and theories and uniformity have always been more important than love. It’s an unfortunate fact. To me, when we say we are followers of Jesus but we discard the pinnacle, defining statement of his teaching career and ministry we dishonor him and misrepresent him. We crucify him all over again.
Third, it makes our relationship with God a subjective, personal matter. According to this scripture obedience to the Law is based on our internal motivation, not our outward behavior. It is rooted in the emotion that rises from an open heart. Jesus says in the Great Commandment that anything based on the selfless, humble kind of love that he teaches about is in fact obedience to the Law. In this scripture he says that all of the Law depends on love. He says that true obedience to the Law is impossible without love. The Law, therefore, is to love.
I say my own version of the Shema every day:
Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One. Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom forever and ever. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. This is the meaning of the Law and the teachings of the prophets.
It keeps me grounded. It keeps me on the right track. It has become a filter for everything I do and say. I think it’s really very hard to be a follower of Jesus unless this “creed” is written on your heart. The people of Jesus’ day wanted to placate God with sacrifices instead of connecting with him heart to heart so that they could live a life of love. They didn’t think it was important to help people in need. They thought that if people were suffering it was because they deserved it.
The intent of Jesus’ ministry was to ignite a revolution of love. It is, in my humble opinion, the thing that Jesus both lived and died for. Not our “salvation”. Or perhaps our salvation is found in love. The flow of love from God to and through humanity and back to God again. A divine circuit of love. The inescapable truth illuminated by this revolution of love resonates across the millennia and calls all mankind to accountability through this simple statement: Love God and love one another. Love is the only important thing. If you get that right, everything else falls into place.
What does this scripture say to you?