Have you ever wondered what it must be like to have the distinction of being the greatest at something? Muhammed Ali claimed to be the greatest, period. Roger Federer and Serena Williams have been declared the greatest tennis players of all time. Many people consider William Shakespeare to be the greatest writer, Mozart to be the greatest composer, and Einstein to be the greatest scientific mind. As of this past Super Bowl, some have said that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback ever. Declaring something as “the greatest,” though, is a very subjective endeavor, and making such claims opens the door to criticism and debate.
The need to define “the greatest” is precisely what motivates a Pharisee to test Jesus. The lawyer asks Jesus to define the greatest commandment in the law. Believing that Jesus would stumble into a trap as he sifted and mumbled his way through all 613 commandments in the Torah, the Pharisee must have been shocked by Jesus’ answer. According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” He continues with a second commandment that is equally great: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two commandments are bound to each other, and we must follow them in tandem. It is impossible for us to love God with our entire being if we do not love our neighbor.
The commandment to love our neighbor comes from Leviticus 19. While the direct quote comes from verse 18, everything preceding that verse spells out what it means to love your neighbor. Loving neighbors involves revering parents, making sure there is food available for poor people and foreigners, refusing to lie, gossip, or commit acts of fraud or deceit, looking out for those with physical limitations or disabilities, and not bearing a grudge.
Jesus completes his answer to the lawyer’s question by saying that all of the law and the prophets, the entire Old Testament, is built upon the foundation of these two commandments. Love is the lens through which we must read, understand, and act upon every word of scripture. Love is the motivation behind all the rules God gives us to follow. Love God, love others. That is the greatest, most important rule for us to practice and get right, and there is no debating that.