Jesus often faced test questions, usually from sceptics who were fairly sure he was an imposter. Several of these test questions were hotly debated by the scribes and scholars of his day, and the question about the greatest commandment was one such. The rabbis counted up 613 commands in the Old Testament, all of which were binding, they said; but they still debated the relative importance of each. There was a chance that Jesus might declare some commands irrelevant, which would lay him open to the charge of ‘repudiating the law’.
Jesus’ reply was thoroughly orthodox, quoting part of the Shema’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) which was repeated twice daily by pious Jews in their prayers. ‘Heart’, ‘soul’ and ‘mind’ were not different parts of a person, for Jews in those days did not think in that way. They saw each person as a whole person, and so if you loved with all your heart that meant you loved with your whole being. Likewise if you loved with all your soul or with all your mind, that too involved your whole being. It is difficult to distinguish between the three expressions, and in Mark’s gospel the word ‘strength’ is added. However, all together the meaning is obvious. It is the putting into practice that is not so easy.
How do we love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength? A very important part of the answer is this: by loving our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus was not asked what was the second most important commandment; yet he went on to say it anyway, because for him the two are inseparable. In the sermon on the mount he taught that if we are about to offer a gift on the altar – the most sacred moment of worship – and then remembered someone who had something against us, we are to stop what we are doing and go and put it right. We – and his listeners – would have assumed that loving God with all our heart would have meant we should concentrate on God and finish the act of worship, and only then gone to put things right with our neighbour. But Jesus said No: first put things right with your neighbour. Love for God is impossible without love for neighbour – even if that neighbour is an ‘enemy’ (Matthew 5:23-24, 43-48).
In the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus makes the same point. How we treat ‘his brothers and sisters’ is how we are treating God, even though we may be completely unaware of it. And in both the Lord’s Prayer and the parable of the unmerciful servant Jesus taught that unless we forgive people who have sinned against us we cannot expect God to forgive us. Our attitude towards our neighbour is our attitude towards God.
Other parts of the New Testament continue the theme. James calls the command to love your neighbour as yourself ‘the royal law’, and wrote, ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.’ (James 1:27.) John wrote, ‘If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. for any of us who do not love a brother or sister, whom we have seen, cannot love God, whom we have not seen.’ (1 John 4:20).
Some may say that all this is only talking about relationships within the Christian community – with our ‘brothers and sisters’. That indeed is important. But the parable of the Good Samaritan was told against such thinking. We are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves – whoever that neighbour is. That is how God in Christ loved us.
1) What does it mean to love ‘as we love ourselves’?
2) Is it possible to love our neighbour but not God, or to love God but not our neighbour?