THE GREAT COMMANDMENT

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The ‘Great Commandment’ appears in all three synoptic Gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark & Luke) but it originates in the Old Testament Torah:

“…A scholar of the law (scribe) tested him (Jesus) by asking, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He (Jesus) said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Mt. 22: 35-40)

In answering the scribe, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus:

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and your whole being, and with your whole strength.” (Dt. 6: 4-5)

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lv. 19: 18b)

Scholars believe that these two Old Testament verses were already theologically linked prior to the time of Jesus. The Torah (‘law’) consists of 613 precepts; these two precepts are thought to summarize the other 611. Therefore, it was quite reasonable for Jesus to say, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

But is the Great Commandment two commandments…or one?

The scribe did not ask Jesus to name the greatest commandments (plural), but rather the greatest commandment (singular). Nor did he object to Jesus’ answer. Unlike some modern day media personalities, he did not say, “Rabbi, with due respect, you didn’t answer my question.”

In fact, in Mark’s version of the story (Mk. 12: 28 – 34), the scribe replies to Jesus, “Well said, teacher, you are right…”

There was no misunderstanding here: both Jesus and his questioners understood that these two mandates constituted a single commandment.

Plus, Jesus says, “the second is like it”. Jesus does not say that second is almost as important as the first or that it logically follows from the first; he says it is “like” the first. How should we understand this ‘like’?

  • That love of God and love of neighbor are co-equal aspects of a single law?
  • That there is one ‘Great Commandment’ but it can be stated in two different ways…and applied in two different contexts?
  • That one cannot truly love God without loving one’s neighbor and one cannot truly love one’s neighbor without loving God?
  • That loving God is loving neighbor and loving neighbor is loving God?

All of the above! It is together that these two precepts form “the greatest and first commandment”.

Either verse, without the other, may be valid and binding, but it is not the Great Commandment. “The whole law and the prophets” do not depend on either one of these precepts alone, or even on both precepts separately, but on both together.

This structure might have been challenging for some of Jesus’ contemporaries, but it should not be challenging for us today. We know, for example, that ‘quanta’ cannot be explained as either particles or as waves; their behavior can only be explained if we understand that they are both particles and waves.

We call this relationship complementarity and clearly the two verses of the Great Commandment need to be understood this way.

We also understand the notion of synergy. Together, as a single commandment, these two precepts mean something more than the two of them would mean by themselves. That ‘something more’ is what makes this commandment “the greatest” and why we are still writing about it more than 2,000 years later.

Yet, the revolutionary nature of the Great Commandment is easy to miss. Love God and love your neighbor: ho hum, Sunday school 101. But that is NOT what’s happening here!

Back to the text! “The second is like it…” Really? The second is like it? Like it? At first glance, this seems ridiculous. The two verses don’t look alike at all. One concerns our relationship with God, the almighty, the creator of heaven and earth; the other concerns our relationship with the schmuck down the street who doesn’t mow his lawn and plays his music loud on Saturday nights.

By saying, “The second is like it,” Jesus is effectively saying that love of God and love of neighbor are one and the same thing. That is what’s revolutionary!

But that’s still not all. Jesus quotes Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not like yourself (above) but as yourself! This is so revolutionary that it’s almost impossible to grasp. Love my neighbor as myself? As myself? Do you really mean to say that my neighbor is me and that I am my neighbor? Preposterous!

Of course, in certain respects I am not my neighbor. We have different genetic make-ups, different experiences and memories, different opinions on many, if not all, topics.

Yet, ontologically speaking, I most certainly am my neighbor! In the language of existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, I have the exact same essence (‘freedom’) and the exact same mis-en-scene with respect to the world (‘facticity’). In every important way, I am my neighbor, no matter how unalike we may be.

In the language of structuralism, identity is not a characteristic of subjects but of relations; my neighbor and I share the same fundamental relationship with the world around us. That is our shared ‘identity’.

In the language of Medieval Philosophy, my neighbor and I have different ‘accidents’ but the same ‘substance’.

For the most part, Jesus’ audience understood and accepted the need to love God; but they struggled with the bit about ‘neighbor’. In the Gospel of Luke, the scribe follows up on Jesus’ exposition of the Great Commandment with a question: “And who is my neighbor?” – one of the most piercing questions of all time and a question we are still debating hotly today. Jesus responds with the famous story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 29).

In our era, the problem is reversed. It has become quite fashionable to love one’s neighbor – or at least to profess love for one’s neighbor. Humanism, Globalism, Environmentalism, New Age Philosophy, Social Democracy, even Communism all proclaim concern for ‘neighbor’.

On the other hand, dear readers, you may well be asking yourselves, “Why do we need to love God in order to love our neighbors? Do we even need to believe in God? In fact, why do we need God at all? Isn’t love of neighbor enough?”

In this way our generation has turned the scribes of Jesus’ time on their heads. They might have asked Jesus, “Why do we need to love our neighbor in order to love God…isn’t love of God enough?”

To our generation, the notion that love of God is essential to love of neighbor is just as perplexing as the idea that love of neighbor is essential to love of God was to Jesus’ contemporaries. That is what makes the Great Commandment so profoundly revolutionary…and forever relevant. It is always counter-cultural.

As we saw earlier, love of neighbor is rooted in the recognition that our neighbor shares our ontological status (freedom & facticity). My neighbor is not just my equal; in some strange sense my neighbor is myself.

If this were not so, and if we didn’t instinctively sense that it is so, would anyone ever be able to “lay down his life for a friend?”

When I look at an inanimate object, I see a potential tool or obstacle or, perhaps, a thing of beauty. I do not see myself. But when I look at you, really look, something amazing happens: I see another me looking back. I see myself…in you, as you.

Seeing myself in you enables me to recognize who I am in relationship to the world. Without a ‘you’, could I see myself as anything but an object among objects? Would I be anything but an object among objects? Would I know myself at all?

Legend has it that human children raised by members of a non-human animal species, in isolation from other humans, come to regard themselves as members of that species.

Although I am of the world and in the world, I transcend the world; but I only discover that transcendence though you. You are my gateway to myself.

But what if you were not there? What if I were alone in a world of inanimate objects? Would I really be just another object among them?

According to Psalm 135 (Section IV), the answer could be yes: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak; they have ears but do not hear; nor is there breath in their mouths. Their makers, and anyone who trusts in them, will become like them.”

But not necessarily! “…Our Lord is greater than all gods (idols).” (Ps. 135 v. 5) As we shall see shortly, God is the universal you, the uber-you. Because God exists, ‘you’ permeates all of creation.

So, is a linear, flat, deterministic world made up of strictly inanimate objects (as posited by Laplace) even possible? If a tree falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it make a sound? If a universe exists but no one experiences it, does that universe really exist?

Look to science. Quantum Mechanics has shown us that experience (e.g. measurement) is an integral part of what makes ‘reality’ real. Experience is a fundamental aspect of reality as we know it. No experience, no reality; no neighbor, no self!

In any event, Laplace’s world is not the world we live in! In the real world, there is reflection, there is experience, there is agency, there is freedom. But where did this come from? Even famous atheists agree that it could not have evolved naturally out of a pre-existent, inanimate world.

Nietzsche writes, “…there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…but nothing exists apart from the whole.”

A.J. Ayer agrees, “There are no such things as objective moral values.”

But apparently Nietzsche and Ayer are wrong. I do judge, measure, compare and condemn all the time; and when I do, I refer to objective (i.e. transcendent) standards. Now I may misconstrue or misapply those standards but that doesn’t make them any less objective…or normative.

So, there is an element in the world that stands apart from the world, that transcends the world, that judges the world and that element could not have evolved naturally out of a purely inanimate world. It must co-exist with the world as a fundamental structure of Being, from Big Bang to Heat Death.  That universal but transcendent element is what we call God.

Essentially, God is Beauty, Truth, Justice, et al. These are God’ values and, according to both Sartre and Aquinas (strange bedfellows), these values are God. But as pointed out above, existentially, God is the uber-neighbor, the universal you. Because God exists, the world existed even before creatures evolved the capacity to love their neighbors; because God exists, I exist even before I have truly encountered a human other.

Otherness, you-ness, neighbor-ness is fundamental to the structure of our world. And therefore, God is fundamental to the structure of our world. Therefore, you cannot truly love your neighbor without loving God any more than you can truly love God without loving your neighbor. The Great Commandment!