A mid-week devotional from Central Presbyterian Church helping us to help prepare our hearts for the day ahead. If you would like to receive these in your inbox, please let us know. Find the complete archive here.
Wednesday, June 29, 2021
The Great Commandment
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Although I don’t get to play them nearly as much as I would like, one of my favorite leisure activities is playing board games. I grew up playing all the classics such as Checkers, Chess, Monopoly and Life, but perhaps my all-time favorite is Balderdash. The main point of Balderdash is trying to discern what is real from what is false. One particular category, called “weird laws,” starts by stating something like, “In the town of Gurley, it is against the law to…” and then contestants anonymously finish the sentence on a piece of paper, after which everyone votes on the submission they believe is actually true. The great thing about the game is that usually the true law is stranger than the fake laws the other players invent. Just for fun, read the following “laws” and then try to determine which is true, and which are made up. 1. According to the state of Connecticut, the legal test to determine if a pickle is fit for human consumption is whether or not it is able to bounce when dropped. 2. In the state of Hawaii, it is illegal to put a coin in your ear. 3. In Louisiana, it is against the law to send someone a pizza without their consent. 4. A bit closer to home, in the great state of Alabama, it is illegal to drive blindfolded, but apparently it is perfectly fine to drive the wrong way down a one-way street as long as a lantern is attached to the front of your car.
Made your selection? See below for the answer.
In first century Jerusalem, there was hardly anything the Pharisees and scribes enjoyed doing more than sitting around talking about the laws of God. Often, when we think about the law of God, we go to the Ten Commandments that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. But when we read through Scripture, we see that there are much more than ten commands of God. The Pharisees counted over 600 laws given by God in the Old Testament to guide the people of Israel in the pursuit of holy living, and they not only spent a great deal of time reading and talking about the law, but they also enjoyed debating the importance of each individual law. the religious leaders considered certain laws, like the Ten Commandments, greater than others, while the significance of others were constantly up for debate.
Jesus’ refutation of the resurrection-denying Sadducees caught the attention of one of these leaders, a scribe who approaches Jesus with an earnest eagerness. Unlike his religious elite peers, who are so hell-bent on catching Jesus in a trap that they discount everything He says, this man is impressed with Jesus’ response to liberal theology. Trying to determine where exactly Jesus fit within religious orthodoxy, he approached Jesus with the ultimate litmus test: which is the most important commandment. Now, remember, there were over 600 commandments for Jesus to chose from, not least of which were those 10 really, really, important ones. But Jesus doesn’t chose one of the ten, in fact He doesn’t choose one at all, He chose two, found in two separate books of Moses.
Without skipping a beat, Jesus began with the commandment that everyone in Israel would agree is most important, from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which was known affectionally by its opening word: “Hear” or “listen”, in Hebrew, “shema”. Every house in Israel contained these words inside a small box on their doorpost, they were inscribed on bracelets and prayed each and every day. The Shema was used akin to the pledge of allegiance to the United States flag. The command starts with a reminder, a call to remembrance, that although they lived in the midst of a pagan land, surrounded by polytheistic nations, the Israelites were distinct in that they worshipped but a single God. “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” And this one God was worthy and deserving of their undivided attention, to be loved with the totality of their heart, soul, strength, and Jesus adds “mind.” His addition did not detract from, but rather emphasized the idea that God deserves and demands our complete devotion.
While the command to love God was universally known, in some ways it was rather ambiguous, left open to interpretation. How exactly do we love God with all that we are? Worship in Jesus’ time, and at times still today, was thought of as the thing that happened at the Temple and in the assembly of the synagogue. To love and worship God was to bring sacrifices, offer prayers, read the Word, and praise the Lord together. While not discounting those things, Jesus explained that loving God extended far beyond our explicitly religious activities and services. In fact, God had already told His people how to love Him. Jesus pointed to Leviticus 19:18 as the ultimate explanation of God’s command to love Him, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
What does it look like to tangibly love the one true God? To love our neighbor as ourself. Naturally, the next question, as another lawyer once asked Jesus, is who is my neighbor? Jesus explained to to him, who was not as eager to accept the truth as this scribe, that our neighbor is anyone whom we would accept help from if we were left to die on the side of the road. In other words, every human being, everyone made in the image of God, regardless of their theology, politics, ethnicity, or nationality, is our neighbor.
This scribe already knew the answer to his own question, and Jesus had passed his test. Growing excited, the man expounded upon the words of the Word by stating, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Bullseye. God is not only interested in what we do in or bring to the assembly, but loving, caring for, and thinking of the people He has placed around us the other 166 hours a week when we aren’t in the building is far more important than what we do the 2 hours that we are.
Knowing the man’s heart, Jesus answered, “You are not far from the kingdom.” If you are anything like me, Jesus’ words to the man may actually be a little jarring. Think about it: clearly the man rightly understood the law of God, and he also accepted and approved of the words of Jesus, but the closest that his knowledge and approval could get him was “near” the kingdom. He was closer than the rest of the self-righteous Pharisees, but he was still missing something. And that “something” was actually the “someone” who was standing right before him.
How do we love God with all of our hearts? How do we love our neighbor as ourselves? It is only possible by first experiencing the intimate love of Jesus for ourselves. We can’t just know God’s words or hold the right theological positions. The Pharisees did that. We can’t even just agree that Jesus is God. The book of James says that the demons know who Jesus is. We can only love Him when we have been loved by Him. We must receive the free gift of the grace of God, who gave His Son for us, and be transformed by the love of Jesus. Then, and only then, can we go from being adjacent to the kingdom, to full-fledged members of it.
*The answer to today’s Balderdash-inspired question is that ALL of the laws are true. Let me know if you figured it out all by yourself without the aid of Dr. Google and I’ll email you a gold-star.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, we believe that You are more than just the answer to a theological question, You are love and life itself. By Your incredible love, we have been transformed, changed from merely being image bearers, to stakeholders, members of Your kingdom and family forever. Forgive us for the times when our “religion” has been little more than a few hours each week. Help us to experience Your love for us, and to share it with those around us, both in word and in deed. May we know You, and love You, with all that we are. We ask in Your great and mighty name, Amen.