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The Greatest Commandment

“On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” This remarkable statement, near the end of one of the friendlier confrontations between Jesus and representatives of the dominant Pharisee party, emphasized the primal importance of two commandments out of the profusion of 613 mitzvot espoused by the Rabbis. Every other law hangs from these two. Getting them right leads to getting the others right. Getting them wrong has significant consequences.

Jesus’ answer was in response to the question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus responded:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

This passage is generally viewed as a kind of summary of God’s laws, extracting the essence of the Torah in a simple, easily comprehensible statement. Love God; love others. Do these two things and you will fulfill the requirements of God.

Unfortunately, what should be a simple, easy to understand guideline is often turned into a complicated list of rules that define how we should love God. The Rabbis of the first century often said essentially the same thing as Jesus, identifying the most important commandments as Love God (from ) and love others (from ). Nevertheless, they had tried to define how that love would look by developing a complicated system of laws and commentary to explain how God’s people should behave in every conceivable situation of life. They started with the Torah, the Law, from which they identified 613 different laws (Talmud Makkoth 23b). Then they developed the Mishnah, which gave legal interpretations of how the Torah should be applied. Then they compiled the Talmud, a record of the legal arguments involved in coming to the rulings of the Mishnah. Then they added the Tosefta, the Mekhilta, the Sifre, the Sifra and a plethora of other commentaries to explain the explanations.

The purpose for all these rules was to create connection to God. The word mitzvah, usually translated “command,” was related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means to attach or join. According to Chabad.org, a mitzvah, in a sense, “bundles up the person who is commanded and the Commandeer, creating a relationship and essential bond.”

Before we become too critical of the Pharisees, the approach of Christians often isn’t much different. Just Google “Commands of Jesus” and see how many lists of commands pop up. I stopped counting at fifty. They range from as few as seven to as many as 1,050 commands. The purpose for them is to give people the means to obey John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Apparently it’s not enough to just love God and love others. We need a long list of rules to tell us how to do that.

The problem with all these rules is that we can’t memorize and consistently apply all those rules any better than the Jews of the first century could. Jesus said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30), and John observed, “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). That hardly describes following a list of rules. In fact Paul put it into perspective.

These [laws] are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-mad religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. (Colossians 2:23)

I would suggest that Jesus was not just summarizing the most important points of the Law when he said, “Love God, love others.” I believe he was presenting an entirely different approach. His emphasis was on experiencing the love of God and being changed by the experience. Rules and laws begin with a cognitive search for the truth, which leads to an attempt to limit and control behavior through a demand for obedience. Beginning with the experience, that is, an encounter with the transforming love of God that forgives us and changes us, results in growth toward maturity.

This process is illustrated by recent discoveries in the field of neuroscience. Curt Thompson (Anatomy of the Soul) describes the function of the human brain as working from the bottom up and from the right to left. What he means by that is that we do not start with truth and work back into appropriate behavior. We start with sensory information that enters through the various body systems such as sight, hearing, and touch. This information goes into the brain stem, where it is processed at the most primitive level, such as determining whether there is a danger that requires fighting or running. From there, the information moves up to the limbic system, the part of the brain that processes emotions. From there it moves to the prefrontal cortex—and generally from the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere—where logic and reason are located. The prefrontal cortex analyzes the information and makes sense out of it, which provides us with a framework within which to adjust our behavior to provide what Daniel Siegel (The Developing Mind) calls a life that is flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable. This process of making sense of experience is vital in giving us stability and predictability.

This understanding has a parallel in what we call theology. Rules come from using theology, the study of God, to tell us what is true and then trying to conform our behavior to that understanding. However, theology should play the same role as the prefrontal cortex. We begin with the experience of meeting God, of experiencing his love and forgiveness. Theology helps us make sense of the experience so that we can continue to learn and grow in our experience. Since none of us has perfect understanding of God, when we start with theology (or truth), we inevitably have a flawed perception of what is truth or what is right. However, the tendency is to cling to our perceptions of truth as though they are complete and flawless. Then we try to force behavior into that mold.

Instead, we should be allowing our theology to give us guidelines for how to interpret our experience with God and to keep growing by a back and forth process that allows experience to adjust our understanding of truth and allowing our understanding of truth to facilitate growth and changed behavior.

I believe this is what Jesus had in mind. Spiritual life begins with love and can only be understood through love. Should we have lists of rules? Experience tells us that they really don’t help much, and probably do a great deal of harm because they take us away from love and emphasis truth as more important. Which ironically results in missing truth more often than not. According to the prophet Micah, God’s requirements are pretty simple.

He has told you, O man, what is good:
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

In other words, love.

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