Friday, November 14, 2014

The Greatest Commandment

Life of Christ 157

          It is Tuesday morning. Jesus will die on Wednesday afternoon. He and His disciples are spending some time in the crowded Temple taking on all comers. His enemies did not disappoint Him. Our story today contains the next in a lengthy series of verbal sparring matches.
          The Pharisees had codified the Torah into 248 specific commandments and 365 prohibitions. These 613 precepts were imposed by them on their followers, along with numerous rules and sub-rules related to all of these precepts. Needless to say, their religious system was cumbersome in the extreme. Often, keeping one of these precepts meant, in practical terms, coming into conflict with a different one. It was necessary then, in their system, to determine the order of priority of these 613 precepts so that they could be followed correctly. This was the only way to ensure that the more important of the two conflicting precepts was kept.
          The ranking or order of these 613 precepts became something of a theological Hundred Years War continuing endlessly amongst rabbinical students and their teachers. One particular Pharisee, a lawyer, launched this idea at Jesus during a break in the flow of the conversation. He was, like all the rest, trying to make Jesus look bad by forcing Him to take a position that might prove unpopular with some of His supporters.

Mat 22. 34   But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together.
35  Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,
36  Master, which is the great commandment in the law?

          Jesus’ response has rightly become well known indeed.

37  Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38  This is the first and great commandment.
39  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

          Jesus explains that contrary to the pharisaic approach there is not a pecking order, per se. Nor was He saying that the Law only had two commands (as is so popularly and so awfully believed in American Christianity). He was saying that all the Law is ‘hung’ on the two commandments He mentioned. This implies a connection between the Law rather than a ranking of separate prescriptions and proscriptions. In other words, the Law is a living body of connected tissue rather than a stack of isolated rules. The organism that is the Law is rooted in a belief in a monotheistic God, a love for Him, and a love for other people.
          It is for this reason that James could say later in his epistle that to break one law was to break them all. For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. (James 2.10) On the surface such a statement seems completely unreasonable. Yet when we view the Law as a connected organism violating it brings guilt even if it is only violated in one area.
          For example, let us say that a nefarious individual comes up to me in a dark alley. He demands my wallet and threatens me with a knife. When I am too slow to comply he slices my arm, grabs my money, and runs off. When he is later found and arrested he will be charged with stabbing me. Yes, he only stabbed me in one place. No, he did not harm my legs, my stomach, my face, etc. But in slicing my arm he injured me and thus punishment is appropriately called for.

          When we violate just one area of God’s Law we are guilty of no small misdeed, beloved. We are guilty of violating the Law, period. It is all connected. The greatest commandment is the entirety of the Law. It is viewing God’s will for our behavior as a monolith rather than a stack of Legos. And it is viewing this Law through the prism, or on the foundation of a belief in God alone combined with a heart love for Him and for the world around us.

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