The two greatest commandments – do we really believe that the Bible got it right? Luke 10:25-42

Gary Shogren, “The two greatest commandments – do we really believe that the Bible got it right?” Luke 10:25-42

Watch us share and preach this message at Calvary Church on Long Island HERE!

Who Is My Neighbor?

25 And behold, a lawyer [better – an expert in the Law of Moses] stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

Martha and Mary

38 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

“The Good Samaritan,” by Ferdinand Hodler, Dutch, 19th century

Introduction

This was the sermon I preached in our supporting churches during the summer of 2021. I was going to preach on the Good Samaritan, but I came up with a whole list of, “No, but I would want to say this or that as background, and then I just decided to talk about the background.

Today, people would put it this way: get your priorities in order, put first things first.

The way the Jewish people of old used to put it was, God has commanded us a lot of  things in his law. One of their discussion points was: What is the greatest commandment. That is: of all the requirements God has for us, which is his highest priority, which should we be paying the most attention to?

We read in Matthew and in Mark that, during Holy Week, a day or two after Palm Sunday (Mark 12) – “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?’” Now, by most counts there are 613 distinct commandments in the Law of Moses; “which is the greatest commandment” was a  popular question. The answer in those passages that the most important was: Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength (Deut 6); while we’re on it, the second is to love your neighbor as yourself, (Lev 19). Some rabbis would have agreed with Jesus; some, but not all. Another answer might have been “keep the Sabbath day holy.”

This interchange in Luke 10 could have taken place months or a year before that. And in Luke 10, the rabbi poses it this way: “what do I do, what commandment, to inherit eternal life?” (that is, so that I will be resurrected at the end of days to enter the eternal kingdom). Jesus puts the question back to the man, and Luke shows that this expert in God’s Law had the right idea: he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” More on that in a minute.

But the Bible expert went further: “And who is my neighbor?” Why does he ask this? We see in v. 29 – but he asked the question, desiring to justify himself, to be RIGHT. He had a craving, as too many of us do these days – me included -, to be right in his opinions. And to have the people around him admit it, to click “LIKE” on his question. He hopes that Jesus will say, “How perceptive you are, you must really want to be a good man. You don’t just want to know what are God’s top priorities for you, you want to know how to follow through on the second one!” But instead, Jesus explores and in effect asks him: you are committed to the right answer…or are you?

It’s a trait of Luke’s gospel that he is careful with the order of  events. Look at Luke 9:57 – people respond to Jesus’ call with delays: I need to show love to other people, people at home, bury my father – that is, these are love-thy-neighbor, second commandment issues! But Jesus does not accept putting the second before the first. In v. 62 – “Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” That is, focus strictly on God and go straight toward.

So, the First commandment is: Love the Lord with all your being; the second: love your neighbor as yourself – today we will focus on that, do we really believe that  the Bible got it right?

I.  The second commandment, love your neighbor, is good, but it’s second: love God and his kingdom are the first

Do you know that, there are people today who put the Second Commandment first, and just assume that they must be fulfilling the First Commandment. Like I said, Luke puts things in order, so let’s take a look at the end of the chapter. Let’s say, in theory, that I get some monthly theology magazine, and they have an article, “Are you a Martha or a Mary? Take our quiz!”, I always score “Martha.” Martha was busy doing stuff; Mary sat at Jesus’ feet like a good disciple should. Acc to Jesus, Mary  was doing the “necessary”, the “good” thing, probably it’s more accurate to go with the Bible translations that say it is the “better thing”. Now, in no way am I going  to say that Mary was doing the First Commandment and Martha only the Second, only God knows. But let’s use that story to think through our own priorities.

So, how do we apply this, that Second is good, but it’s second; serving God and his kingdom is first, loving others is second.

Some Christians are Passionate about a Cause (whatever the cause may be). They are Second Commandment warriors. Now: I have a cause(s), Karen certainly has a cause.

Ask some people about the Lord and sure they seem interested. But when you get them talking about their Second Commandment Crusade: or political or cultural activism; Christian schooling; prolife work; a friend of ours does a wonderful work  in educating prisoners; or social justice; or a particular brand of Christian counseling; or missions – NOW their eyes light up! NOW their hearts are pounding! So the key is: Does this Second Commandment, love-thy-neighbor action clearly  and directly flow from love for God? Or would you have to say something lame, like, “Well, I must love God, just take a look at my To-Do list!”

So, we have said that the second commandment, love your neighbor, is good, but it’s second; love God and his kingdom must be first.

But let’s flip it upside down:

II. If you don’t do the Second Commandment (and with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus wants this expert in the Bible to get this point) you’re not doing the First one.

As John put it so simply in 1 John 4:7-8 – “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love [that is, other human beings] does not  know God, because God is love.” So, if you truly love God (first) you will love your neighbor (second). The two commandments are inseparable.

The priest and the Levite were people who supposedly loved God, who honored the First Commandment; but they walked on the other side of the road. And by neglecting the Second Commandment, they showed that it was all a farce. And the rabbi who asked “And who is my neighbor!” apparently was meant to look in his heart to scrap everything and think about how he was in total need of God’s grace.

Also, there are people who use the First Commandment (love God with all your being) as an excuse for neglecting the Second. This happened in Bible times.

That’s not what the Samaritan did – Jesus speaks of a Samaritan and (apparently) a Jewish victim of a mugging; let’s not say they disliked each other; these two groups practiced terrorism against each other; the rabbis took a narrow view to “love your neighbor”; Jesus on the other hand gave it its very broadest meaning. In effect, Jesus says “Well, who ISN’T your neighbor?” And this parable would indicate, that your neighbor clearly includes Muslims, people of other races, the Jews – anti-Semitism making a comeback in this country! – people who speak other languages, the people who push for LGBTQ rights). Let’s not fall into, “And who is my neighbor?” Who isn’t your neighbor?

We are saying that, If you don’t do the Second Commandment, you’re not doing the First one. We are typically out of the country for three years, then back in for a time, and there is always culture shock. For example, I am now invited to use a computer touch screen to order my sandwich at the Gas and Gulp. It’s like something out of the Jetsons!

This time, and apparently, I’m not the only one to notice this, but in 2021 I am in culture shock over more substantial things: I keep running across American Christians posting on social media, with verbal denunciations, threatening physical violence, or using foul language; pastors even. Hence the culture shock. And, apparently, people are using – misusing – the First Commandment to do so. Their logic seems to go like this: I love God, therefore I have a license to rain fire on his enemies; therefore, whatever I am doing or saying logically must not be construed as a violation of the Second Commandment, to love my neighbor as myself. In fact, the more furious I am, the more it shows I love God. No – If you don’t do the Second Commandment, you’re not doing the First one.

III. Let’s come to our original question: the two great commandments – Does the Bible get it right about them?

This is the math section of this little exercise: First is first; second is second. Now, this is the point where my students say, “But you said there wouldn’t be any math on the exam.” I want us to rule out some bad math:

Bad Math Part A. People who claim that there aren’t two great commandments after all, but three: if you are going to do the Second one, love your neighbor as yourself, it has to go this way: Love God. Love yourself. And THEN you can love- your-neighbor-as-yourself.

Now, when it comes to self-esteem, I don’t think we should go around talking a lot of trash about ourselves; in fact, maybe we shouldn’t go around talking a LOT about ourselves.

But anyway: At that point we need to go back to my original question: “The two greatest commandments – do we really believe that the Bible got it right?” I think Jesus knew the truth about ourselves and taught that truth; and yes, in his day, a huge swath of the population had awful self-esteem, their whole lives they were told they were worthless: unless you were an adult, male, wealthy, powerful – the 1% were raised to have good self-esteem. I have to go with the Lord on this one: first is first, second is second, and this is the main thing that pull us out of the pit of a  poor self-image.

Bad Math Part B. And I am not making this one up; I hear: there are three commandments: you must love and appreciate yourself; only then will you be up to  loving God, because only then will you be able to appreciate that he values you; only then will you be equipped to love others. We could disprove this point by point, I suppose – but frankly, I wouldn’t know where to start.

This is an attempt to insert a commandment before the first one, which is to love God.

Now: I don’t know if any of you are fans of Isaac Asimov’s sf (Robots and Empire, 1985) or study physics, maybe you know the clever word that someone made up in the 1950s: the word “zeroth”. Someone made a list starting with first, second, and third law of thermodynamics (these are the ordinal numbers),  and later on realized they left out a step, so they had to slide in a prior rule, before the first. Zeroth,  first, second, etc. Here’s hoping they didn’t forget anything else in the list!

In the Bible there is no “zeroth” commandment – or a commandment .5. People who tell you or even imply by their tone of voice that before doing the First and the Second you need to, that before Loving God with all your being some other box must be checked, to create a political or family or cultural or social environment and THEN we can begin to do Commandment One and Two, is telling Jesus he got it wrong. He or she is like the man who is plowing the field and keeps looking back over his shoulder. It doesn’t matter if you zig left or zag right, you’ll be plowing a crooked row. And the apostles agree on this: look at Romans, 1 Peter, 1 John, and even Revelation: the church of Ephesus was perfect except for this: they had lost their first love; and Jesus said he would snuff out their candle for that one error.

No, Commandment One, Commandment Two are correctly labeled and in the right  order: Love for God – by developing intimacy with God (which would require a whole series of sermons) – concrete steps to know him intimately, spend time with him, learn his ways; for the first commandment is to love Him with  all your being – can you begin to find and help your neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself – spend  time with them, learn about them, put yourself in their shoes, and love them as God  does. Jesus did both commandments perfectly, and it sent him to the cross. And both these commandments we do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and only through the power of the Holy Spirit who teaches us to love.

“The two greatest commandments – do we really believe that the Bible got it right?” Luke 10:25-42, by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament Exegesis, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

5 thoughts on “The two greatest commandments – do we really believe that the Bible got it right? Luke 10:25-42

  1. A question for you… Have you ever heard anyone argue that there aren’t actually two commandments here but one? I heard this in a sermon several months ago and the rationale seemed to be that Mark 12:31 is in the singular when it talks of “commandment.” It seemed to me that what Jesus is saying here in Mark is that “there isn’t a single commandment anywhere that is greater than the two commandments I’ve just mentioned.” Anyway, it was a sermon on loving one’s neighbors, and it seemed to lean in the direction of “we love God by (this word “by” emphasized) loving our neighbor.” For myself, I think it is true that this is one way we love God (and a very important way since he commanded us to do so) but it is not the only way. Your thoughts?

    1. Hi there, yes, I can’t see where that interpretation comes from. In Mark 12 it’s, “no commandment (singular) greater than these (plural), meaning they are #1 and #2 and that there is no commandment greater than these two.

      They are called “first” and “second” in Mark, and even more clearly in the Matthean parallel: “This is is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it (that is, like the first).

      Blessings, Gary

  2. Really good thoughts. Thanks for posting those. A couple of comments…

    I am also in shock over the way many Christians justify political hate speech. We’ve really lost our way on that one. Or, more accurately, I can only conclude that we’ve become like the Ephesians became. With the rebuke of Christ, perhaps they repented. If so, hopefully we will as well.

    With regard to The fuzzy math of changing two commandments into three, I couldn’t agree with you more. I seldom hear that heresy addressed. Thanks so much for doing so and in a clear and convincing way.

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