The first three books of the New Testament tell of different interactions where Jesus gives us the two most significant commands in the 613 given to Israel. In Matthew chapter 22, Jesus is tested and asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Mark, chapter 12, appears to be the same story, but the question is phrased, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Luke, chapter 10, says that Jesus is asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Each of these stories results in Jesus giving the people two responses instead of one. First, he gives them the Shema as it is called. This is basically the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. It is the words found in Deuteronomy chapter 6. You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
Then he gives a second command that is found in Leviticus chapter 19. We are told there to love our neighbor as ourselves. Luke gives us a further explanation as the questioner wants to know, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the good Samaritan.
These stories give us what Christians call “The Great Commandments.” Believers often summarize them in two simple statements; “Love God and love people.” These phrases are so familiar that even people who have never read the Bible could probably give you those two instructions for faith.
Over the second half of my ministry, I have noticed a shift to placing the attention on the second command. Quite often, I have heard ministers say something like, “the way that we love God is by loving people.” Therefore, a Church emphasizes community action and service.
These are noble endeavors, but I feel they are misguided in their presentation. Jesus never calls these “one commandment.” He says they are two and called them “these” in a plural sense. There are two separate things he is saying, and there maybe be overlap like a Venn diagram, but they are not the same.
I fear that Christians have emphasized the second to the neglect of the first. Jesus clearly says there is a first and greatest command (Matthew 22:38) – first, of greatest priority, the number one thing we should be doing. The most significant thing a believer does is to love God with all their being. They give God their heart, soul, mind, and strength.
The reason I mention this is because of the neglect I see happening in faith communities. We have led people to believe that if they help a neighbor, then they have done all that God requires of them. That is not true. God demands all our attention. Loving him includes pouring out our emotions in worship, surrendering our soul to him in repentance, learning about him with our mind, and serving him along with others in his name. We must be careful of reducing faith to being a nice person who cares little about God. A believer is kind because they have given God everything. Our lives come from the overflow of faith in God, and it impacts everything we do, not just a few hours we offer a neighbor.