Master, which is the great commandment in the law? (Matthew 22:36)
Many people are often repulsed by Christianity because they view it as a system of regulations and restrictions designed to remove all the joy of living. They equate church affiliation with an endless list of “thou-shall-not’s.” Sometimes Christians themselves fall prey to this perception. I remember my oldest son once protesting my exhortation to live a holy life by saying, “Do you expect me to become a monk!” Leave it to teenagers to exaggerate and be overly dramatic! But in reality, that is how Christianity is often viewed. “If I become a Christian, I’ll have to give up drinking beer, going to honky tonks, sleeping around, shacking up with my girlfriend. I’ll have to quit going to the football games on Sundays. I’ll have to cancel my subscription to my girly magazines” – and on and on the list would go.
This encounter with the Pharisee (in our verse) came during Passion Week, before Jesus was crucified. The religious leaders had swarmed around Jesus like a school of piranhas firing questions at Him in hopes of tripping Him up in order to find an excuse to have Him executed. Jesus masterfully fielded all of their questions so that they were confounded as to how to respond. Finally, this Pharisee approaches him with this profound question.
The Pharisees took pride in their adherence to the law of Moses. They knew the law so well, that they had devised clever ways to circumvent the law when it became too inconvenient for them. For example, the fifth commandment said, “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12). Among other things, this commandment implied that children were to care for their parents in their old age. This, as you might imagine, would involve some expense. The Pharisees had devised a work-around where they would dedicate to God what they had set aside for the care of their parents. Of course, they were free to use it for themselves, but it got them out of the expense of caring for elderly parents. Jesus called them hypocrites (Matthew 15:3-9).
So now, this Pharisee approaches Jesus in all of his self-righteous arrogance, sure that he will stump this simple Galilean carpenter, and asks this most profound question that only someone of his high intellect and learning can answer. “Master,” he begins with tongue in cheek, careful not to burst out in laughter, “which is the great commandment?” Perhaps he expected to hear one of the Ten Commandments like the fourth: “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Jesus had often been accused by the Pharisees of breaking the sabbath. Perhaps he expected to hear something from the Talmud, a collection of rabbinical traditions. Jesus responded by quoting from the Shama: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-6).
Why would Jesus quote this passage rather than the first of the Ten Commandments – “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3)? Likewise the second commandment says, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image …” (v. 4). And the third says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain … (v. 7). Why not one of these?
The answer lies in recognizing Who God is. The commandments are just so many rules, and as the saying goes, “rules are made to be broken.” The Pharisees were expert in bending the rules. They had no love for God. To them, God was, for all practical purposes, an academic exercise. They did not deny God, but to them God was an impersonal being that must be appeased by strict adherence to His laws, which could be circumvented given the right conditions. So, they had the first commandment covered, they did not recognize any other gods and they disassociated themselves from anybody who did. They had the second commandment down; they disallowed any graven images. In fact, they would not allow Roman coins into the temple because they bore the image of Caesar, hence they had money changers at the door of the temple that would exchange Roman coins for kosher temple coins (for a price). They had become so proficient at not pronouncing the name of God (Yahweh) by simply replacing the Name with “LORD” (Adoni) that they literally forgot how to pronounce it! This was all bound up in legalism, and it expressed no love toward God.
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38). What makes this the greatest commandment is that it recognizes God as supreme in all things. He is Creator (Genesis 1). All creation belongs to Him. The heavens, i.e., the universe, belong to Him (Job 41:11; Deuteronomy 10:14). The earth belongs to Him (Exodus 9:29; Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 24:1; 50:12). All the wealth of the earth belongs to Him: the animal kingdom (Psalm 50:10), and all the mineral wealth (Haggai 2:8). All of the land belongs to Him (Leviticus 25:23). The kingdoms of the world belong to Him (Psalm 22:28), and we each, individually, belong to Him (Leviticus 20:26; Ezekiel 18:4). It is this last one, if the others aren’t enough, that should give us pause for concern, for Ezekiel 18:4 ends with this phrase: “the soul that sinneth, it shall die.” To break the greatest commandment is eternally fatal.
We often show contempt for God when we presume ourselves to be self-sufficient, and that all we have comes by our own efforts. When we come to that conclusion, God reminds us that when “thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth … thou shalt remember the LORD thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth …” (Deuteronomy 8:17-18). When you understand that ALL belongs to God and nothing belongs to you, then you can begin to recognize and be sincerely thankful for all He has given you. That begins with your very existence – every breath, every beat of your heart, is a gift of God. Then you can thank Him for your parents and all your ancestors before you without whom you would not exist. You can thank Him for your spouse and for the children He has given to your charge – they are His and He has granted you oversight of their lives. You can thank Him for your health and your intellect that allows you to be gainfully employed or conduct your own business. You can thank Him for the nation in which you live. If you are a Christian, you can thank Him for your brothers and sisters in Christ that gather around you in spiritual and material support when you are in need. There are so many things that come from His hand for which you have to be grateful.
How can you love Him with all your heart, soul and mind? Your heart is the seat of your emotions. Your desire should be to have fellowship with Him, just as you desire to be with any person you love. I love my wife, and I want to be with her always. She is my best friend, and when she is away from me, there is an emptiness that only she can fill. Our desire for God should be no less heartfelt than that. To love God with your soul means that you yield every fiber of your being to His will. Does that mean to become a monk? Yes, if that is His will for you. Does it mean that you surrender your life to be a missionary in a third-world country where there is a danger of losing your life? Yes, if that is His will for you. But mostly what it means is that you are willing to serve Him exactly where He has placed you: to be the husband and spiritual leader of your family; to be a godly father or mother to your children; to stand up for your Christian beliefs even when it is inconvenient for you. To love Him with all of your mind means that you spend time reading His word rather than filling your mind with the useless and unfruitful noise of the this world. Paul said, “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8).
How can you know that you are keeping the greatest commandment? Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). What Jesus is saying here is that, if you keep the greatest commandment (love Me with all your heart, soul and mind), you will keep My commandments. He also said, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10). When you love God/Jesus with all your heart, soul, and mind, His love inhabits you, which enables you to love Him more. When you love Him with all your heart, soul, and mind, you will find that those things you treasured before are not so valuable after all, and the things you thought you would lose by surrendering your life to Him, you will find that He replaces with greater blessings. The greatest commandment ensures that you have nothing to lose (because it’s not yours to begin with), but you have everything to gain (because as your heavenly Father, everything that is His He gives to His children).