One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; 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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
According to rabbinic tradition, the OT contained 613 commandments. 248 of them were positive commandments, meaning “do this, do this, do this.” And 365 were negative commandments, meaning “don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this.” That’s a lot of things to remember to do and that’s a lot of things to remember not to do.
And so from early on, it was recognized that some of these commands were heavy and some were light. Some were really big and some were really small. In other words, from very early on in Israelite faith, it was recognized that not all commandments are created equal. Some commandments are more important than others. And few things are more destructive and less biblical than the incredibly misguided belief that all the Bible’s commandments are equal.
When I was in middle school, I vividly remember going to youth camp for the first time. I didn’t much want to go but some of my friends talked me into it, and so there I was, walking into the worship service on the first night of camp…and I’m wearing a hat, turned backwards. Now little did I know, but apparently there are some Bibles in which wearing a hat, much less a backwards hat, in worship, is the unforgiveable sin. It’s the mark of the beast, no less.
So no sooner have I walked in to worship then I feel somebody behind me pop the bill of my hat, sending the hat flying up and off my head. I turn around, and who do I see but one of our adult chaperones. And upon seeing me look at him with anger and confusion, he looks right back at me with anger and confusion and says, “Surely you know better than to wear a backwards hat into worship.”
I didn’t know much about Christianity or the Bible back then. I certainly wasn’t familiar with the (rather culturally conditioned) passage in 1 Corinthians in which Paul says that it’s disgraceful to pray with something on your head. But even back then, something in me said, “Why in the world would this guy puff out his chest and take a stand over something like this? Over a kid wearing his hat into worship?”
That’s a pretty benign example. I didn’t curse Jesus and reject Christianity because some grumpy fundamentalist shamed me for wearing my hat backwards. But there are many darker examples in which people’s belief that the Bible is inspired by God leads them to blindly attempt to apply all the teachings of the Bible equally. So not wearing a hat in worship is, supposedly, as important as…feeding the orphan. And saying a bad word is, supposedly, as damnable an offense as…neglecting your family.
And to all of this, to the desire to use the Bible to paint the whole world in black and white, the Bible itself, Jesus himself, says…no. It’s not all equal and it’s not all black and white. Rather Jesus himself teaches us that at the heart of things, there is something that takes priority over all things. At the heart of things, there is something that all other things must bow down before, must serve, must give way to. At the heart of things, there is something beyond black and white.
And that something that the Bible and the whole universe revolves around is this: love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.
Have you ever wondered why we talk about love so much? Have you ever wondered why we think about love so much? Have you ever wondered why we sing about love so much? Have you ever wondered why, from the beginning of time it seems, we’ve been haunted by the sense that love is the deepest rhyme and reason of things; that love is the center of gravity that holds all things together; that love is the answer to all the mysteries of the universe? Have you ever wondered why we every last one of us carries around the primal intuition that if we could just learn to love and be loved, everything would be ok?
If so, then hear Jesus’ answer: we were made to love. Love isn’t just one thing among many other things—love is the thing. Love is the reason why anything and everything exists. Beyond black and white, there is love.
Not too long ago, I was talking with this guy who thought I emphasized God’s love too much in my book. Because in his mind, God is love, sure, but God is also equally just and wrathful and so on. So it’s wrong to treat love like it’s more important than other important things.
And so finally I said to him, “Dude, you and I must be reading different Bibles. Because my Bible tells me that the greatest commandment is not to be fair or objective or balanced or equal portions justice, wrath, and love, that not all commandments are created equal…but that in my interactions with others, love trumps all, because in the heart of God, love trumps all.”
As the greatest theologian of the 20th century, Karl Barth, says it: “God is” means “God loves”…All our further insights about who and what God is must revolve around this mystery—the mystery of his loving.
Now if you are paying any sort of attention, then you’re noticing something; namely, the greatest commandment is actually two commandments, or so it seems: love God with all of your being and love your neighbor as yourself. So, what’s the relationship between these two commandments that together form the greatest commandment?
The relationship is often spelled out something like this.
Love of God is the vertical and primary commandment, which ought to result in love of neighbor, which is the horizontal and secondary commandment. And together, they make a cross, so you know it’s true :). Our love for God is most important and becomes the source of our love for neighbor.
And while that’s not the worst way to think about it, I don’t think it’s the best way to think about it. Because I think the Bible is very clear that the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor is much deeper than that—that the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor goes all the way down to the bone. And I want to look at 3 scriptures that really bear this out.
Read 1 John 4:7-20.
Did you notice it? In this text that’s dripping with thoughts about love and God and neighbor, our love for God is, basically, never even mentioned except in the negative sense, when we’re told that if we can’t love the person in front of us, we can’t love God.
In this text, it’s not that God’s love for us produces our love for God, which then produces our love for others. Rather, it’s that God’s love for us produces our love for others. There’s not this extra step where our love for God produces our love for others. No—it’s that God loves us, so we love others. Hang on to that as we check out two other texts.
In Romans 13:8, Paul says this: “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Then in Galatians 5:14, Paul says this: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So again, did you notice it? Did you notice what’s missing? Twice Paul says, “The whole law, everything God wants from you, comes down to doing just one thing: love your neighbor.” Knowing full well that Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself, Paul, twice, chooses to skip loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and just say, “It all comes down to this: love your neighbor.”
This isn’t a mistake or an accidental oversight. Paul has made a calculated decision to boil down the greatest commandment from love of God and neighbor to just love of neighbor. Why?
Well, how, exactly, do you think you would go about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? What would that look like, loving God? Would it be saying nice things to God? Would it be thinking happy thoughts about God? Would it be feeling warm, fuzzy emotions toward God?
I’ve found that we often conceive of our love for God being some sort of abstract feeling, expressed to God through the things we say and think and feel about God. And while I think there’s certainly a place for all of that, the Bible pushes beyond these abstractions and gets really, really simple.
How do we love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
By loving our neighbor.
The primary way to love God is not by things said, thought, or felt about God, but is by loving the person in front of you.
And so the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor is something that goes far beyond vertical and horizontal, something with a depth that reaches down to the very bottom of things. Love of God does not produce love of neighbor, so much as love of God is love of neighbor. It’s what love of God tends to look like.
Toward the end of a recent trip to Nepal, we want on a hike to a peak called Shivapuri. And when we reached the peak, this was the view that was waiting for us.
It left me speechless for a while. The valley, surrounded by foothills, giving way to the Himalayas—the tallest mountain range in the world, the very top of the earth, reaching up into the clouds. It was a holy moment for me. And I wasn’t expecting what happened next.
A soft, quiet voice inside me said, “Austin, would you believe that in the eyes of God, every single human you’ve ever laid eyes on is more beautiful than these mountains? Would you believe that every single human—young or old, black or white, sinner or saint—is holier than the Himalayas?” Because it’s true you know.
As Psalm 8 says it, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth. You have set your glory above the heavens…When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him? Or the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than God, and you crown him with glory and majesty!”
What a stunning thing to say—a little lower than God; whatever that means, that’s what humans are. That’s what God himself made us. As C.S. Lewis says it, “The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…But it’s immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses.”
Your neighbor—that sometimes intriguing but sometimes dull, sometimes kind but sometimes hateful, sometimes gracious but sometimes greedy, mess of a person sitting beside you, sleeping next to you, standing in front of you—is holier than your Bible, holier than your words and thoughts and feelings, holier than the Himalayas.
So if you’re looking for God, then look no further than your neighbor. Because the path to God usually leads through the person in front of you. As Paul says it, “It all comes down to this: love your neighbor.”