When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? ’He said to 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 greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Matthew 22:34-36
What is the greatest commandment?
For many, the answer requires some thought and no one is better at thinking than our oldest daughter. Years before Lauren was in kindergarten, a Sunday school teacher asked her if she knew God’s law. Thinking carefully, she replied, “Always wash your hands after you go potty.”
What a testimony to parental guidance sending a child down the fastidious path of godliness. I can almost hear Jesus, suffering the children as he did, responding indulgently, “Um, yes, but the second greatest commandment is love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus did us a favor by summarizing the law of the prophets into two simple phrases. As we have noted earlier in this space, there are 613 laws set down in the Old Testament, ranging from huge (don’t kill, don’t steal) to pissante (don’t yoke an ox and an ass together, don’t wear weaves of wool and linen). There are, to be sure, rabbinical and ecclesiastical lawyers who, perhaps lacking a life, can discuss the laws in benumbing detail. But for most of us, a quick digest saves a lot of time.
Jesus was not the only religious leader to summarize the law in a few words. The Rev. J. Richard Fairchild, a Canadian pastor whose online sermons are read unaccredited each week from innumerable pulpits, has helpfully isolated some of those abstracts:
“What does the Lord require of you?” inquired the Prophet Micah. And then he answered with just three commands: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
The Prophet Isaiah based the commandments on just two of them. He wrote: “This is what the Lord says: ‘Maintain justice and do what is right, for my salvation is close at hand and my righteousness will soon be revealed.’” (Isaiah 56:1)
Amos saw one guiding principle upon with all the commandments are founded, He wrote: "This is what the LORD says to the house of Israel: "Seek me and live" (Amos 5:4)
The Prophet Habbakuk, too, expounded the Torah on the basis of a single thought: "The righteous shall live by their faith." (Habbakuk 2:4)
The great teacher Akiba, virtually a contemporary of Jesus, said this when asked the same question that Jesus was asked: “The greatest principle of the Torah is expressed in the command: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Leviticus 19:18)
And Hillel, also from the first century of our era summed up the Torah in this maxim: "What is hateful to you, do not do to others. The rest is commentary: you must go and study it."
Finally, the teacher Ben Azzai found a principle even more fundamental in the words: "This is the story of humanity: when God created us, God made us in His likeness."
The summaries are simple and direct. But life is complicated and oblique. There are times when we have to wonder: is the Golden Rule an adequate guide for all conduct?
I went to a sectarian college where rules were rules and the student handbook recorded almost as many regulations as the Old Testament 613. Alcohol was strictly forbidden on campus, and they meant it: a Korean exchange student was summarily expelled for cooking with wine. Men and women were encouraged not to sit close enough to touch, and the handbook strictly forbade “public displays of affection.” But public displays of animosity, as I enjoyed pointing out to the dean, were not explicitly banned and often erupted on the soccer field.
And, in the necessarily oxymoronic atmosphere that existed on a Christian campus in the psychedelic sixties, the rules were often contradictory. Eastern Baptist College in 1968 may have been the only institution of higher learning in the U.S. where the religion department taught Darwinian evolution and the biology department promoted creationism. I was always proud of that eccentricity, but it was confusing. The Eastern Baptist College disparities made it anyone’s guess how the rules of Christian conduct might be stated in a simple, declarative sentence.
Then at the very end of my senior year, I took my first course in philosophy under Dr. Peter Genco, a black-bearded mensch whose dissertation was rumored to have proven the existence of God. Among the text books we studied was Situation Ethics, The New Morality (1966, Westminster Press) by Joseph Fletcher, a medical ethicist who, more interestingly, was an Episcopal priest turned atheist. The book was, for me, an apotheosis of philosophical discovery because it offered an enticing formula to guide ethical behavior.
Simply put, the greatest commandment of Fletcher’s domain was love. Ethical behavior was measured by the amount of love expended in the process. The more love you showed, the more ethical was your behavior.
The idea made ethics quantifiable and opened doors traditionally shut to nice Christians. I’m talking about sex.
Fletcher offered four situations in which ethical behavior might be contrary to conventional morality but would be okay depending on the amount of love you showed. The greater the amount of love, he said, the more ethical your behavior.
Given the hormones flushing through my 20-something arteries, the idea was most appealing.
One of the examples Fletcher cited (it may or may not have been a real-life story) involved Mrs. Bergmeier, a German woman caught in the cataclysm of the Second World War. She was picked up by a Soviet Army patrol one day while foraging for food for her three children and sent to a prisoner of war camp in the Ukraine. Her husband, after rounding up the children, spent months in a desperate search for her. In the Ukraine, Mrs. Bergmeier learned that her family was looking for her but Soviet rules would not allow her to be released unless she was pregnant. A friendly camp officer graciously offered to help and before long the expectant Mrs. Bergmeier was released to her family.
That worked for me. Here was Mrs. Bergmeier and the generous camp officer, each loving their neighbor as themselves. And wasn’t this extra-marital coitus an expression of the purest kind of love?
Actually, Fletcher doesn’t say. He leaves that to his readers to figure out. Professor Genco, as I recall, was having none of it. “Sex,” he said, “requires three magic words: ‘I take thee.’” Without a lifetime commitment to your partner, sex is a sin. So went the official line of the Eastern Baptist College faculty. But would it also be a sin for Mrs. Bergmeier to remain morally pure but separated from her children? Again, Fletcher doesn’t say. You tell me. It’s an ethical dilemma.
Every Sunday morning before church, I do a quick scan of the New York Times Magazine, especially “The Ethicist” column by Ariel Kaminer. Each week, the ethically challenged seek Ms. Kaminer’s advice. It’s fun to guess what solution she may suggest for each moral quandary.
Not long ago, the following letter appeared:
I smoke a fair amount of marijuana. Sometimes I ask my friends if they want me to pick up weed for them as well, in which case they give me the money upfront. As with any other commodity, prices are usually cheaper when buying in bulk. I will often not give the change to my friends and instead use those few dollars to further my own discount. Is this unethical? I’m the one going through the effort of gathering buyers and conducting the illegal transaction. Or does that just make me a drug dealer? NAME WITHHELD
The letter made me choke on my coffee. Here, under the guise of neighborliness and with a sensible entrepreneurial spirit, this dude was trying to justify illegal activity. How do you rationalize that? Smoking weed doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t love God. But is the writer treating his neighbors as he would want to be treated himself? Is he violating the golden rule?
Ethicist Ariel Kaminer saw right through him:
The size of someone’s commission doesn’t make him a drug dealer. What does? Same thing that makes someone a Toyota dealer: acting as a go-between on a commercial transaction involving a producer and consumers. So you’re a dealer — one with a distinctly mellow business plan but no doubt lots of friends.
Opinions abound, of course, about the ethics of buying drugs in the first place, based on the right to pursue your own pleasures, the risk of supporting narcoterrorism, the damage that drugs can do, the damage that the war on drugs can do, the duty to obey the law, the duty to oppose the law and so on. But that’s not what you’re asking about. You’re asking about your cut.
If nothing else, this example from “The Ethicist” shows how far some people will go to justify their behavior.
It also suggests how difficult it is to make ethical decisions, even if all 613 biblical laws are digested into that seemingly effortless phrase:
‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. ”This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
On these two commandments, Jesus said, hang all the law and the prophets. But they are not like the cheese cracker commercial in which a plain cracker is magically infused with 613 pounds of cheese so that you get all that cheesiness in one tasty bite. And you know, if you’ve actually tasted the cracker, it’s not that cheesy.
In the same way, infusing 613 laws into a single phrase isn’t going to make it equally potent. You have to know a little bit about the laws that are being summarized. You can’t love God and love your neighbor without some understanding of what that kind of love is all about.
As Fairchild (hereby appropriately credited) once preached:
Jesus loved God - and he loved the world that God made. All of it. And so he came among us as a servant rather than as a master, as one who forgives and heals rather than as one who judges and destroys; as one who made himself poor so that others might be made rich; as one who was obedient to God - even when obedience meant he would suffer and die; as one who trusted that God would judge rightly and reward those who lived by faith. You know that God first loved us. That God is with you even now to fulfill all his promises. Our response should be to walk humbly with God - and to do justice and love mercy, trusting in God’s great mercy by which we are born anew to a living hope.
The greatest commandment is not a substitute for the law. It is a reminder of what the law and the prophets are about. It is a reminder of what love is all about.
And, most important of all, it is a reminder that neither the greatest commandment nor the 613 laws it summarizes will be worth anything unless they guide us to the love of Christ, and to the understanding that it is easiest to love Christ when we remember that he first loved us.