Religious leaders were always orchestrating ways to entrap Jesus. They had been at it for a while. This was Tuesday of Holy Week, in Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus was involved in a long series of disputes with Sadducees, lawyers, chief priests, elders, scribes, Pharisees, and their disciples. In each confrontation, Jesus proves himself more clever, careful, and inspired than his adversaries. When Jesus asks questions about the messiah and his relationship mop to David, they are stumped and finally silenced (22:41-46).
A legal expert from among the Pharisees decides to ask Jesus one last question in order to test him, “Which commandment in the law is greatest?” (22:36). Jesus’ answer is classic. Loving God is the first thing, the most important thing. Loving God means that you also love God’s people. The ancient rabbis put it this way: “What is hateful and hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” This silenced the Pharisees and they withdrew from the fight. On the next day, they hatched the plan that will remove this trouble-making prophet and permanently silence him.
It’s difficult to interpret this double commandment for our time. We have lost sight of the biblical meaning of love. Our culture has equated love with intense emotion. We believe love is a stronger response than to like. And, both are measures of a passive response to something outside us. We love a movie, it entertains us. We like chocolate, we cannot help ourselves. We ls not passive and it is not strictly emotional.
The Old Testament has many references to many kinds of love, but the love referred to here by Jesus is the love of Deuteronomy 6:5, the love of Yahweh. This love is an active response of the faithful person to the love of God. God’s love is always active. God chooses (elects) to love Israel above all nations and to bring his love through this chosen people. To love God with all one’s heart, and soul, and mind, is to choose to respond to God even as God chooses to love us. Our feelings and emotions do not enter into the equation.
We find in the New Testament, the primary word used for love is agape. Like philia, or brotherly love, it is a passionless love. Eros is the word for passion or desire. The latter two are used sparingly in the New Testament. In the gospels agape has some connection to emotion, where God cares for God’s creatures and creation. Agape refers to what we call loving-kindness. It’s active mercy. It refers to generosity and patience these are generated by the one who loves. Love is not a feeling, but a choice.
Loving our neighbor is difficult. Biblical love is not something that occurs to us without our will or control. Biblical love is something we do. It is loving-kindness, merciful action that is both continuous and generous. To love neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as one would act toward those close to you.
These commandments are connected, “the greatest commandment” and the “second, which is like it”. When we love God’s people, we are always, and at the same time loving God. The emotion is not commanded. Only the action of love is commanded.
In Jesus Christ, this we can do, even when we sometimes don’t feel like it.
“I don’t know how, but I know Who!”
Grace and Peace,
Reverend Dr. Nelda Barrett Murraine is Pastor at First United Methodist Kennedale 229 W 4th St. Kennedale, TX 76060