Greek thinkers valued brevity. They believed the simplest statements expressed the purest truths. A well expressed phrase could epitomize an entire philosophical system. Plato summed up the thought of his teacher Socrates, for example, with an ancient, two-word proverb: gnothi seauton, “Know thyself.” Israel developed similar motifs after centuries of contact with Greek thought. Although Israelites had always valued concise proverbs, thinkers of Jesus’ day also developed Greek-style “wisdom summaries” of Israelite teaching. One famous story relates that a pagan man challenged the esteemed Rabbi Hillel to teach the entire Torah while he stood on one foot. As the man lifted his foot, Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary: Go and learn.”
‘The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.’ (Mt 22:40)
What has God done for you that draws your wonder and gratitude?
How do you live out Jesus’ simple words in your life?
It is such a wisdom summary that Jesus’ opponents demand today. “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus turns to Scripture, drawing the first part of his response from Dt 6:5 and the second from Lev 19:18. These were probably texts that had inspired him throughout his ministry, but his response was also shrewd. By using God’s own words, Jesus offered his opponents little to refute and gave his sympathetic listeners a religious outlook both vigorous and elegant.
Modern readers might not feel the same inspiration. Authentic love cannot be commanded; it is given freely or not at all. The covenantal language of Deuteronomy and Leviticus assumes such freedom. When the books of the covenant speak of love, they speak of something that emerges from feelings of wonder. Israel beheld with awe the appearance of God on Sinai and God’s care for them through 40 years in the desert. God’s people were astonished by such grace and expressed their gratitude with acts of service and devotion. When Israel followed God’s laws and addressed their prayers only to him, they expressed through such actions the kind of love Jesus commands today. When later generations recited the accounts of these wonders, they kindled in their own hearts the awe their ancestors felt, and they too sought out acts of service and devotion to express their gratitude.
Part of Israel’s genius was to find in fellow humans a similar source of devotion. The nation was strongest when Israelites bore each other’s burdens and held each other in high esteem. Prophets struggled to maintain this ethos, and its collapse heralded invasion and exile. The survivors of these catastrophes recognized a miracle in the life of each Israelite. They expressed their gratitude for the nation’s survival in an awe-inspired love for neighbor as well as God.
Jesus turns this love toward the whole human race. He draws on Deuteronomy’s protection of foreigners for the seeds of this teaching, but his commandment makes it universal. Every human life is a miracle. Every display of love that we receive should transfix us with awe and inspire a response of the deepest generosity. Christ dreams of a church so loving that it holds the world spellbound in wonder and reveals a God whose mighty deeds are worthy of profoundest devotion. Those who live out Jesus’ simple words bring this dream to fulfillment.