The longer I do this thing of trying to walk through life calling myself a Christian and trying to figure out what that means in a world where everything feels increasingly urgent and conversations and relationships have become increasingly fraught, I find myself wondering what is the minimum essential belief. Is there a basic statement we can boil down this thing called following Jesus to that all of us who claim to be trying to do that can agree on–or dare I say, should agree on.
And I’m not one for pulling verses out to support my position because I feel like it’s too easy to do that and miss how those words connect into the grand stories that span the whole of the Bible and can’t be understood without connection to the other, but there is this one statement, this one instance, where it seems stunningly clear.
Don’t get me wrong, the context is still very important, as is the way that Jesus answers this particular question. The question comes in a series of questions. Two different religious groups wanted to trick him into saying something illegal or blasphemous so they would have grounds to get rid of him. They had realized he was talking about them in his parables and they “wanted to arrest him” (Matthew 21: 46). And the very next parable Jesus tells had to be rubbing salt in the proverbial wound talking about how all the people they called unclean, and undesirable, sinners and righteous alike, and brought them to the wedding banquet instead of the original invitees. Now if we zoom back out on this story for a second, and look at all the times God tried to invite humans to God’s party and they mistreated God’s messengers, you see why they end up missing out on the party altogether. But only because they refused to come. Folks, there’s a whole other post in there, but I’m trying to set the stage for this one statement so I’m going to move on.
Fast-forwarding here there were several other trick questions about taxes and the resurrection, and finally they come out with the one they think will really stump Jesus. Now if you go through these stories in Matthew 22 you’ll see Jesus frequently returns questions with questions and in a broader context of the gospels, returns questions with stories.
So I believe it is very significant here that Jesus returns this question with a concise and brief statement. One of the religious leaders, who was also a lawyer, asks Jesus,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
And Jesus answers him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandmant. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
I mean, this is huge. This is about as clear as it can be. The Hebrew Scriptures are called the Tanakh which is an acronym for the law (Torah), the prophets (Nevi’im), and the writings (Ketuvim). So saying “on this hangs all the law and the prophets” is short-hand for saying, “All scripture hangs on this.” And since Jesus is standing there in the flesh, pre-writing of the rest of what we Christians recognize as Scripture, I think it’s safe to assume all of what we call scripture hangs on these two commandments, which are so intertwined, that even though this lawyer asked him for the most important commandment, Jesus gave him two.
So I’m breaking down all my theology and beliefs and re-analyzing all of it. Is it based on love of God and in the same breath, love of my neighbor?
Because when we are radically committed to love of our neighbor, it changes how we preach, how we vote, how we interact with people we disagree with, it changes everything. It requires we put the well-being and thriving of our neighbor over and above any other goals and forbids us from supporting things that prevent human flourishing in any sector of this planet. I could get specific with examples, but I think any issue in the church or in the world can be measured with this, and if people are really trying to come up with solutions that hold the love of your neighbor in first place, then we would be implementing a whole bunch of things differently. Does that belief love your neighbor as yourself, does that policy put the flourishing of your neighbor above all else, does that movement put the safety and peace of your neighbor in first place?
What would you change if you put love of neighbor first?
One last thought and then I may come back to this in other posts, but if you’re wondering who your neighbor is, Jesus has a story about that for you too. And just for kicks if you haven’t done it, look at what the people he was telling the story to thought of Samaritans and vice-versa. Jesus loved to get in there with stories that would have been considered transgressive to the religious leaders of his day.
And one more extension of this who is my neighbor. If this tied up with love of God is the most important thing to believe and act on, then Jesus showed us what that means very literally in the cross. And he died for the whole world, meaning if we are to walk in his footsteps, then the whole world is our neighbor.
Okay last, LAST, caveat. I’m thinking on a broad scale right now, and trying to hold up both theological and political beliefs to this light. In no way does this apply to you staying in toxic relationships that are sucking the life out of you, or are otherwise abusive. Staying in those relationships enables abuse and doesn’t help anyone. Removing yourself from those loops and calling out the toxic person or abuser when necessary and safe to do so can also be an act of loving your neighbor as well as yourself. But most importantly, if you can’t care for yourself, you can’t care for your neighbor. Taking steps to promote all human flourishing means that you and I get to flourish as well.