An old English proverb says, “A fool may ask more questions in an hour than a wise man can answer in seven years.” There are good questions, foolish questions, trick questions.
The religious types had been lobbing questions to Jesus, one after the other, trying to trap Him with His own words. Question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? A woman was married to seven brothers in a row. Question: Whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Each time, Jesus returns the question with backspin. Today another question:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Torah?”
That’s a good question. How would you answer it? Well, we’d probably start with the ten commandments, and figure that the first would be the most important since it’s, well, the first, right? “You shall have no other gods before Me.” That has to be the most important commandment, since it deals with God, and it’s the first, and the one most of us still remember. “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” That has to be more important than the other commandments further down the list that deal with obeying parents and adultery and stealing or cheating or lying or gossiping or coveting. Yeah, the first commandment gets my vote. That’s the most important one. Keep that one and you can slide a bit on rest, right?
The Pharisees went a lot further than ten commandments. They were connoisseurs of commandments. Like stamp collectors, they went through the Torah with a magnifying lens. And when they had gone from Genesis to Deuteronomy, they collected 613 commandments. 613 biblical principles. Six hundred and thirteen dos and don’ts to make you the apple of God’s eye. It’s bad enough having to learn ten, much less keep them. Can you imagine 613? No wonder they were asking Jesus which was the most important. When you have 613 you definitely need to prioritize. So which one is the top dog?
As the question rolls over in your mind, you begin to see the problem with priorities. By putting something first on a list, you diminish everything below it. That’s why I frown on the idea of “putting God first” in your life. You hear people say that sometimes. Very piously and religiously. “God first, family second, work third, play fourth.” The trouble with that kind of list is it sets God over and against family and work and play so that everything in your life is held over and against God. And you know deep down in your gut that can’t be right. A list like that also makes God one item among several on a list, and you know that can’t be right either because God shares a list with no one and nothing. He wants to be everything, not just your top priority. And actually, when you stop and do the math, God doesn’t actually come in first anyway, not if we measure it in how we expend our time and treasure.
Take time, for instance. You have 24 times 7 equals 168 hours to spend each week. Now let’s do a little math. Let’s say work and sitting around on the freeway take up twelve hours a day. That’s 60 hours. That leaves us with 108 hours. Let’s say meals take another 2 hours a day, and you eat seven days a week. That’s 14 hours. 94 left. Sleep? Put me down for 8 a night. That’s 56, and let’s throw in an extra hour on Saturday. So we’re down to 37. Now you have things like shopping, washing the car, cutting the grass, changing the light bulbs, all those nifty home improvement projects you’ve been wanting to do. Let’s just average all that to about 8 hours a week and call it even, shall we? We’re down to 29 hours. Now if you’re like most people, myself included, you like to spend a little quality time curled up with a good book or watching the World Series or college football, let’s say a couple of hours a night. That leaves us with 15 hours still unaccounted for. Now, let’s say you go to church to worship the Triune God and receive His gifts of salvation and you manage stay for Bible study and a second cup of coffee. That’s another 3 hours. And hopefully you spend some time at home reading the Bible and praying even though we don’t have required hours of prayer like the Jews and the Muslims do. If you’re keeping track, we have about 12 hours a week still unaccounted for.
The purpose of this little exercise is not to make you feel guilty about how you spend your time. It’s simply to demonstrate that you can’t say God is first when He ranks somewhere below your favorite book or game two of the World Series. And that’s what’s wrong with priorities. God can’t be first among your priorities. Another god among your pantheon of gods. Instead God is in the center of every priority – family, work, play, whatever. God is in the middle of it all, because your life as you now have it, is hidden with Christ in God. So every waking or sleeping hour of the day has God in the middle of it, whether you acknowledge that fact or not.
That’s what is ultimately wrong with the Pharisees’ question. Which commandment is the greatest? You can’t answer that. They are all great, each in their own way, because each has God in it. Luther recognized that when he said that the first commandment was at the heart of all the commandments. Fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and all the other commandments will flow quite naturally. And every sin against even the smallest of commandments is a sin against the first commandment.
Jesus said, “The great and first commandment is this: You will love the Lord your God with your whole heart and with your whole life and with your whole mind.” God wants everything, your whole being. You belong to Him. He is the Lord, your God. He’s a zealously jealous God, He wants you all to Himself. Your will, your breath, your mind. Everything. He doesn’t want to be a priority in your day planner, He wants to be what He already is – your God. And you can have only one of those.
“And the second is like it,” Jesus says. Hey, wait a minute. Who said anything about a second commandment? The question was, “Which one is the greatest commandment?” Not which two. That’s cheating. But Jesus throws in a second, or maybe 1b to His 1a. “The second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two hang the entire Torah and the Prophets.
You thought you could love God and forget about your deadbeat neighbor who gets on your nerves? Wrong, religious boy. You thought you could be religious in your own little spiritual bubble and despise the people around you? No way, pious girl. You thought you could keep the first commandment and blow off the rest and say, “That’s good enough?” Well, I’m sorry, but it’s not good enough. Jesus won’t let you play priorities with your love. Love God, love your neighbor. Vertical love: Love God with everything that you are – your heart, which is your will. Your soul, the very fiber of your being. Your mind. Horizontal love: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love is the fulfilling of the law
It seems so easy to say, the way that word “love” rolls off our lips, but do you do it? Do you love God, not just a little bit, or an hour and a half on a Sunday morning’s worth? Do you love God with your whole heart? Is your entire will tuned in to God’s will? Do you pray “thy will be done” and then accept God’s answer? Do you love God with your entire soul, your whole breath? Or do you withhold parts of your being from God? Do you resent not being in control of your life? Does not being in control bother you? Do you love God with your whole mind? Or do you love your mind as though it were God?
And what about that neighbor whom you are to love as yourself? That’s a tall order. Get it right, and the prize is yours. Get it wrong, and you’re a dead duck. Do you love your neighbor? I’m not talking about the nice ones; the ones that bake you a cake on your birthday. Those are easy. I’m talking about the rude ones. The unlovable ones. Do you love them? Do you love yourself? Jesus did say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” so that presumes that you love yourself. Do you? Do you love what you see in the mirror, especially when the mirror tells the truth?
These are the tough questions, aren’t they? They can be painful questions, if taken seriously. It sounds so sweet and nice. Love. Love God, love your neighbor. Please recognize something, dear people. You must love perfectly if you want to save yourself. You can’t slip up even once. You must love perfectly. You must love God even when He doesn’t deliver what you ordered. You must love your neighbor even when he or she doesn’t live up to your expectations. And when the Law is finished with your loving, the only question left on the table is, “How then can anyone be saved?”
And that brings us to the Jesus Question. Who is the Christ? Who’s Son is He? “Son of David,” the Pharisees answered. They learned that in Saturday school in the synagogue. The Messiah would come from David’s line.
“Good,” Jesus says. “So now tell me. When David was speaking by the Holy Spirit in the Psalms, he said, “Yahweh said to my Lord sit at my right until I make your enemies a footstool under your feet.” Now here’s a question for you: If David calls Him Lord, how can He be his son?”
Now there’s a great question. How can the Christ be son of David and yet Lord at the same time. Unless, of course, David’s son is also the son of God. And then there’s much more to this Jesus than a sharp rabbi who can’t be trapped by clever questions. He’s the Son of David, Son of Man, Son of Abraham, Son of God. All of these. Son of David, successor to David’s throne, the world ruler who reigns eternally. Son of Abraham, the promised Seed by whom all nations are blessed. Son of Man, the second Adam, who embraces all of humanity in His own human flesh. Son of God, the second Person of the undivided holy Trinity.
And this Son of God was born Son of David for one purpose: To gather the whole world and all of loveless humanity into His death and to rescue it from it’s failure to love God and love neighbor. Jesus loved perfectly. He loved God with His whole heart, with His entire soul, with His whole mind. He loved His neighbor as Himself. Not just His favorite disciples, but also the crowds, the outcasts, the demonized, the diseased and despairing, and yes, even the religious types with their pesky questions. He loved them too. And He loves each of you.
He loved His Father, and obedient to His will to save, He went to the cross to die. He loved His neighbor, even to the point of praying for those who killed Him. That perfect, holy love is yours, His gift to you. It comes with His death for you and His life for you. Jesus is God’s love for humanity, and He is humanity’s love for God. In Jesus, you love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. In Jesus, you love your neighbor as your self. In Jesus, you love yourself, because your sin is put away as far as the east is from the west.
And the Law, from the greatest to the least of the commandments, is fulfilled in Jesus. On the One who hung dead on the cross hangs all the Law, every commandment. The Law cannot condemn you. There is no condemnation for anyone in Christ Jesus. No question about it.
So which is the greatest commandment? Wrong question. Who is the Christ? That’s the question. And you know the answer: His name is Jesus. The Jewish carpenter from Nazareth. Son of David, Son of God. Your Savior, your life, your love. No question about it.
In the Name of Jesus,