Jarrod Longbons: Don't Overlook the First Command

He came into my study, clearly with an agenda. As he carefully chose his seat, I could see his mental wheels spinning. Then, he sat down in a sort of reclining power pose. What came next was a barrage of unclear, probing, and leading questions. I had no idea where his questions were leading. What was his purpose in my study that day?

I could tell he wanted me to say something. He had the look of a detective looking for a particular answer - perhaps so he could have the upper hand in some future discussion, debate, or significant decision regarding our future. Whatever it was, I was uncertain; I felt like I was on shaky ground. Frustrated and inspected, I blurted out, "Just let me know what you really want to know. Cut to the chase, please."

I am not sure about you, but I dislike feeling like someone is trying to trick me or trap me in an argument. Do not bait me into an answer that will later pigeonhole me. Maybe it is my Midwestern roots, but I prefer simple, straightforward communications, I guess.

When we read the Gospels, it seems as though someone was often trying to trap Jesus in a religious argument in much the same way. And maybe we shouldn't blame them, at least in the case of today's text anyway - Jesus has been saying much to critique the religious status quo. In the previous chapter, for example, Jesus goes into the temple and "cleanses it." That is the traditional name for this event. But if you look at the Fig Tree story that accompanies it, and his citation of the prophet, it is more like Jesus is judging and condemning the temple. Think of how offensive that would be. Jesus not only halts the activity but also brings judgment upon the very place God was said to dwell. Jesus, it would seem, has a lot of explaining to do.

As the many religious leaders gathered around Jesus, a lawyer asks about the fundamentals - "What is the great commandment?" You'll remember the answer. Jesus replies with perhaps the most well-known teaching from the Torah called Shema: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."

What does this mean? How does one love the one who is beyond human imagination this way? I suppose it means that we are to love God with our whole selves, with every fiber of our being. As Bonhoeffer was fond of saying about discipleship, it is about a single-minded focus upon the Lord.

Now the next great command - Jesus tells them - is "like" the one from the Shema. Famously, the command is to "love your neighbor as yourself." And for Christ, the law and the prophets hang upon these two profound spiritual teachings.

I don't know about you, but sometimes I think the second command is more accessible to imagine than the first. Is it not more natural to think of how one treats another person in terms of justice, compassion, charity, and grace than it is to single-mindedly focus the whole of one's being upon an ineffable God who is beyond the confines of the cosmos? The second grand command certainly appears more measurable and practical. And maybe it is a bit more novel to our imaginations - especially given contemporary mores surrounding self-care and self-esteem.

How does loving your neighbor spark interest in those who are concerned with self-care? Discover it in the logic of the second command. If you are to love others as you love yourself, it implies that there is a proper way to love yourself. Following Kierkegaard, a fine 19th century Danish Christian philosopher, in Works of Love, the second command teaches us that all the respect, dignity, concern, forgiveness, grace, and charity required to grant others is actually what we must offer to ourselves. You have undoubtedly heard that adage, "You have to love yourself before you love someone else." Yeah, there's a bit of that in there too.

I'll never forget that night. I was beating up on myself again in what some have called a "shame spiral." I was telling myself a story. It goes like this: "I am not good enough. I am not doing enough. I am not worth much to anyone." This is not a gospel story in any way, but it is one that many people tell themselves. Now, on that particular evening, I was on the phone with a dear friend. In response to my internal storytelling, he simply said: "you are not being nice to my friend, and I think you should, he deserves it. I really want you to be nice to my friend." It is a good friend that stands up to you for you! The next morning as I continued my self-loathing - alone in my study - the same friend sent me a link to a music video by Christian singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson. The song was called Be Kind to Yourself. In the video, Peterson is singing and playing the piano alongside his daughter, for whom he had written the song. I listened to it passively until one line popped to tear bubbles in my eyes. The lyric goes like this: How does it end when the war that you are in is just you, against, you, against you? You gotta learn to love, learn to love, learn to love your enemies too.

I trembled with tears in my study that morning. I stood in awe of the power of the second high command. Yes, the teaching of this command is alluring.

But then our text does an about-face! Don't you just love it when scripture does that? The turn in the text is all about the Messiah's identity. And at first, it seems utterly unrelated to the two great commands that Jesus elucidates, like it's just a non sequitur. The narrative beauty here is that while the lawyer and other listeners tried to trap Jesus into a rhetorical trap, with this textual turn, we find them in a trap of Jesus' own making. "Who is the Messiah?" asks Jesus. "The Son of David," they answered. Then, Jesus utilizes a Psalm to argue that King David, too, will call the Messiah, Lord. How can the Messiah be David's son if David also calls him Lord? The people are left speechless. Perhaps even confounded. What is this Jesus talking about?

Of course, we know that Jesus' self-understanding, as the Messiah, is often complicated through a narrative device within each individual Gospel. Yet it is his understanding of his identity. So, what is up with all this Davidic, Messianic, and Lordship language?

Plainly, what's going on here? Let me suggest that Jesus is beginning to claim his identity as Lord. Why is this profound, precisely when we connect his Lordship claims with the two great commands? It is that Jesus is the same Lord that people are to love with their whole being. The same Lord loves each creature, neighbor, stranger, friend, and enemy, and thus wants you and me to love others as ourselves.

With this high Christology aside, let's get back to the assumption I made earlier. I think we are drawn to the second command - Love your neighbor as yourself - more quickly than we are drawn to the great commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

Again, I believe the reason for this is that loving one's neighbor is easier to understand. It is practical, measurable, and to it we can add optics and data points. Missionaries and non-profits know this well. They receive questions like: "How many people have you fed?" "How much money in aid did you release?" "How are you addressing systemic racism?"

It is so much harder to imagine loving a God who is beyond being, ineffable, and mysterious. No matter how much we may think of Jesus Christ when we think of God, none of us were contemporaries with the historical Jesus; simply put, it challenges the imagination to think about how one loves an invisible God. But another reason that we tend to focus on the second command is that we are Americans. And it is deep within the American, and the American church's, ethos to fixate on duty, the ethical, and even social justice. Our churches are often filled with well-meaning people trying to bring change to the world, but who have not received personal transformation through their single-minded focus upon loving God with their full being. And this is paramount if the church is going to be something more than a benevolence society, or a social work agency.

Might I suggest to you today that as we pursue the Lord Jesus Christ and his Kingdom pathways, do not neglect the second commandment? We must continue to bring the Kingdom of God wherever we go, and that means working for the care of creation, working against racism,

caring for the poor, orphan, and widows. Of course, you could not neglect these and other works and follow Jesus at the same time. And I think many of my Protestant brothers and sisters do this part well! But do rethink what it means to love God with every fiber of your being. It is here, where I wonder if we are neglecting our faith. Friends, slow down from all the tasks of your life, rest in the fullness and "givenness" of being. Reach into the vast tradition of our faith and learn the skills of contemplative prayer, fast and pray, embark on a Holy Pilgrimage (not simply a tour), let God's grace touch your body through word and sacrament - be transfigured by God's grace. Study, and give your intellect to God - see how God will use it.

It is incredible when we devote our love, our whole self to God; the work of loving others flows quite naturally - it becomes less of a force of one's will. When I was in high school, I had a football coach who was a hard case. He was sour, irritable, and it was not beyond him to insult others. Years later I saw coach at a wedding. He came to my table to say hello. He was jovial, kind, and totally unlike I remembered him being. When he left my table to move on to another, he said, "May God's grace and favor be with you!" I was stunned. With my jaw agape, a friend came over and said, "You look surprised!" "I am," I said. Then my high school friend told me that coach is a changed man. Coach was searching for something that he felt he was missing in his life. One day coach showed up at my friend's church. And as my friend tells it, coach fell in love with God. He learned to pursue God with all that he had, and it has made all the difference. He learned to love God and it taught him how to love others too.

My friends, blessings on your pursuit of the greatest and first commandment. Let the love of God overtake your life. Amen.