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The Greatest Commandment

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#1 mrmando


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Posted 03 November 2011 - 08:24 PM

Is it possible to place too much emphasis on Jesus' designation of Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18 as the greatest and second greatest commandments?

John Shore is, according to John Shore, the most popular Christian blogger writing in English. Here's what he has to say:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard [Jesus and some of his critics] debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

So there is Jesus flat-out telling us that this is the most important thing he ever has said or will say.

Seems like a good thing to pay attention to, no?

If Jesus says that something is the greatest commandment of all, then we can be certain that we have found ground upon which we can stand for the rest of our life, without once having to wonder whether or not we’re in the right place.

It goes on from there, and it's pretty good ... but I'm seeing more and more of the "greatest commandment" formulation being applied to resolve every theological question imaginable, as if it mattered more than anything else Jesus said.

I am opposed to the practice of "boiling down" the teachings of Jesus any further than they've already been condensed in the Gospels. The amount of red-letter material there is actually quite small to begin with. And I am fairly certain that Shore is making a grand logical leap from "greatest commandment" to "the most important thing he ever has said or will say." If the most important statement Jesus could give us was a bit of debate-trick commentary on the Torah that amounts to a formulation of the Golden Rule ... well, we don't really need Jesus for that, do we? There are other rabbis we could have gotten it from. Heck, we don't even need a rabbi; teachers from half a dozen other great world religions could have told us the same thing.

To read Shore, though, you'd think this single sound bite is the future of Christianity.


Edited by mrmando, 03 November 2011 - 08:24 PM.

#2 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 03 November 2011 - 08:43 PM

mrmando wrote:
: And I am fairly certain that Shore is making a grand logical leap from "greatest commandment" to "the most important thing he ever has said or will say."

Indeed. It presumes that the most important thing Jesus could ever say would necessarily entail a commandment from the Hebrew Bible. But there are all sorts of other things that Jesus said which could arguably be even more important. Like, say, "Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." (John 6:53)

#3 mrmando


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Posted 03 November 2011 - 08:47 PM

Yes, that statement at least has the advantage of being absolutely unique to Christianity, of necessitating the incarnation of Jesus himself, and of including atonement and Eucharist.

Edited by mrmando, 03 November 2011 - 08:48 PM.

#4 mrmando


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Posted 05 November 2011 - 05:39 PM

Well, it seems that Shore and his clan have pretty strong universalist tendencies ... so from that angle, it makes perfect sense that the most important thing Jesus said was something that we don't need Jesus to tell us.

#5 Pair



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Posted 06 November 2011 - 04:25 AM

I'm starting to fear that the trend in all aspects of life is to "boil it down," ever smaller.

Audiences want it memorable, meaningful, compact and portable. It also wouldn't hurt if it was a bit cute: a pithy parable. If you can't tweet it, nobody is interested, and you had better not use a comma or introduce multiple thoughts or you'll lose everybody immediately. Rich complexity is evil and time consuming; keyword-based simplicity is good and leaves enough time and energy to go on to the next best thing that we will ALSO only invest a few moments of our life in.

Greatest Commandment Theology would fit in perfectly with the lifestyle of the overstimulated, and do so under 140 characters.

The problem for that worldview is that Christianity needs more room than that. It is diverse, curious, complicated, sometimes even vague or subtle. The Greatest Commandment is that which contains all others, but to just fling it at anybody in the room with a serious, probing, complicated mess of a problem in their life - treating the Greatest Commandment as a sort of apologist's booger - accomplishes little (and like a flung booger, is very unappealing for most). Sometimes such an oversimplification of faith drives people who are NOT simple and do NOT have simple lives away from the church.

To answer the blogger, Jesus didn't leave anything out. The author says "That’s the part he left out! It’s not love God, and then love your neighbor. It’s love God, feel how much God loves you, and then love your neighbor."

I respectfully disagree. It's love God, and like unto it, love your neighbor. They are two sides of the same coin. We can say we love God, but if it isn't manifesting itself in love of our neighbor, then the coin isn't actually as big as we are convincing ourselves. Being two sides of the same coin, both must have equal dimensions. Our overall faith coin is only as big as its smallest side.

And yeah, I just got cute and tried to boil it down, but what is contained in this commandment is the further expansion Jesus did on the Law. He goes and says "Repent" then gives a pretty detailed rundown of exactly WHAT a repentant soul looks like in Matthew 5-7, The Sermon on the Mount. I always start there, I challenge others to clear their head of all they have been led to believe Christianity to be, then read those three chapters with an open mind. Their mind can typically find no fault there. Jesus makes quite a bit of sense now that the culture of Christians has been stripped off his person. Once their mind is opened, then we can look to opening their hearts and souls. Yeah, the red letters are still pretty short, but the study continues and continues...

For instance, you find information on the cultural and religious background of the writers, their audiences, the extenuating circumstances under which these different books (spanning different geographies and different time periods) were written, and WHY. All of that makes your faith so much richer. Christianity constantly unfolds, and it is a wonderful and lifelong process. Theologians with scholarly biblical acumen of GENIUS proportions, after a lifetime of developing their faith die wishing they could learn just one thing more; then realizing all will be soon revealed, go to meet their Maker. I simply don't understand people who want to fold all that back up and stick it in their pocket.

Unfold it, make it complicated and messy. People ARE complicated and messy; and we aren't about to be perfect, but we can keep seeking after a perfect God. Recently I read something along the lines of "Express what Christianity is to you in seven words or less!" as a fun little exercise on Facebook or someplace (geez, now I hope it wasn't Image's FB :P) ...but I couldn't help but ask myself "Why would I EVER do that?" ...a question I realized was under seven words. ^_^

"The most important thing he ever said?" Blech.

The most important thing Jesus ever said was what he said with his life, all of it. How very appropriate he is referred to as The Word. I can hardly think of anything more delightfully complex.

Edited by Pair, 06 November 2011 - 04:28 AM.

#6 mrmando


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Posted 06 November 2011 - 06:32 AM

The most important thing Jesus ever said was what he said with his life, all of it. How very appropriate he is referred to as The Word. I can hardly think of anything more delightfully complex.

Yes, precisely. If you want a sound bite, how about "It is finished"? That's the sort of statement that invites people to discover exactly what was finished, and what was required to finish it.

The "greatest commandment" formulation is Jesus' slight variation on something that had already been said a few decades earlier by one of his near-contemporaries: Hillel, one of the founders of the Pharasaic tradition. And his repentance motif is borrowed directly from John the Baptist, to whom Jesus repeatedly tips his hat throughout the Gospels. As you have noted, it is with the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus begins to develop his own rhetoric.

And upon further reflection, waiting until you feel God's love before you start loving your neighbor is a pathetic cop-out. Why wait for anything? Just do it.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity:

But though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings. Some people are 'cold' by temperament; that may be a misfortune for them, but it is no more a sin than having a bad digestion is a sin; and it does not cut them out from the chance, or excuse them from the duty, of learning charity. The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. There is, indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his 'gratitude', you will probably be disappointed. (People are not fools: they have a very quick eye for anything like showing off, or patronage.) But whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less.

Consequently, though Christian charity sounds a very cold thing to people whose heads are full of sentimentality, and though it is quite distinct from affection, yet it leads to affection. The difference between a Christian and a worldly man is not that the worldly man has only affections or 'likings' and the Christian has only 'charity'. The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he 'likes' them: the Christian, trying to treat every one kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on — including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.


Some writers use the word charity to describe not only Christian love between human beings, but also God's love for man and man's love for God. About the second of these two, people are often worried. They are told they ought to love God. They cannot find any such feeling in themselves. What are they to do? Do not sit trying to manufacture feelings. Ask yourself, 'If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?' When you have found the answer, go and do it.

On the whole, God's love for us is a much safer subject to think about than our love for Him. Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.' He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right. But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference; and, therefore, it is quite relentless in its determination that we shall be cured of those sins, at whatever cost to us, at whatever cost to Him.

Edited by mrmando, 06 November 2011 - 07:02 AM.