Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus and asked him what was the most important commandment. In a religious context where people were expected to memorise and keep 613 different rules, I can understand why they would ask Jesus which one he wanted them to prioritize the most. The writers of the gospels differ slightly in the way they tell the stories, but they all agree that Jesus said that loving God with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength, and loving our neighbours like we love ourselves was the essence of what God wants us to do (see Matthew 22:37-40; Mark 12:39-41; Luke 10:26-28).
Jesus’ shift from a highly developed system of rules to one command to love challenges us to think for ourselves. When we have rules, we can either follow them or react against them without giving much thought to what we are doing. With Jesus’ command to love, however, we need to start asking ourselves some difficult questions. Who are our neighbours? How we do love them in real, practical ways? Is love for God something we feel? Is it just about the songs we sing? Or is loving God something more?
In teaching us his number one command, Jesus also gives us a way to interpret all the other commands through the Bible. Essentially, they are commentary on how God wants us to love him and love other people. Especially when we read the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17, we can see how God wants us to love him in the first three, and how to love the people around us in commandments four to ten.
(At this point it might be good to explain that I’m following the traditional Lutheran numbering of the 10 Commandments. While other parts of our Christian family number them differently, I’m happy to accept that there are different interpretations without debating which is correct.)
A gift we have in Martin Luther’s explanation of the Commandments in his Small Catechism is the way he explores how they teach us to actively love God and other people. We could spend a lot of time delving into each commandment. They open up so many ways for us to live out Jesus’ command to love that our entire lives can be dedicated to doing the good works that they teach. (If you’re interested in learning more about what Luther taught about good works and the 10 Commandments you might like to read his Treatise on Good Works).
For example, when we hear the Commandments teaching us how to love, God wants us to:
- respect and trust him above everything else, because whatever we love most of all is in fact our god
- use his name to pray, praise and thank him for the good he does for us and gives to us
- take time in our busy lives to rest, firstly because it’s physically good for us, but also so we can grow in our identity as his children by participating in a community that gathers around his word
- honour and respect those in authority, even if we don’t think they deserve it
- provide for the physical needs of our neighbours
- be pure and honourable in our sexual relationships, keeping the promises we have made as married couples and helping others to keep their promises to each other
- help others to protect and improve their property and possessions
- speak well of others and explain their actions in the kindest ways, no matter what they might be saying about us
- do what’s best for others in regards to their personal possessions
- do what’s best for others in regards to their relationships
When we interpret these Commandments as showing us how to love God and the people around us, they are very challenging. They ask us to look beyond ourselves and what we get from others, to focus on God and other people, and look for ways that we can bless and benefit them.
What is critical about re-interpreting the 10 Commandments through Jesus’ command to love, however, is asking why we are doing what we do. I regularly come across the idea that people have, both inside and outside the church, that we need to keep the commandments if we want to get to heaven. The paradox in understanding the 10 Commandments through Jesus’ command to love is that if I’m trying to keep them for my own benefit, then I’m actually breaking Jesus’ command because my focus is still more on myself than on God or other people.
The only way to keep Jesus’ command to love is to trust that God will take care of us in every way so we can focus on him and others. Matthew and Mark tell us that when Jesus began his public ministry, he proclaimed that the Kingdom of Heaven had already come near (Matthew 4:17; Mark 1:15). In a similar way, Paul tells us that through faith in Jesus we have already been raised to new life in the resurrection of Christ (e.g. Colossians 3:1). We don’t have to keep the commandments to get to heaven because the life of Jesus, which is stronger than death, has already been given to us through faith in him by the power of the Holy Spirit. That faith sets us free from having to focus on ourselves and shifts the entire focus of our lives towards the God who saves us and the people around us who need his love. When we trust God to take care of us and provide us with everything we need for this life and the next for Jesus’ sake through the power of his Spirit, we can love God because of his love for us in Jesus, and extend his love to others. Through faith in Jesus, we can follow his teaching on love. The 10 Commandments show us how we can do that in real, practical ways.
In the freedom God gives us through faith in Jesus, how can we better show our love for God who saves us and who loves us perfectly in his Son? How are we able to extend God’s love to the people around us, especially those who deserve it the least but need it the most, by following what the Commandments teach us? Loving in the ways the 10 Commandments teach isn’t always easy, but we can be sure that, when we live by them in the faith the Holy Spirit provides, we are doing the good that God wants us to do.
More to think about:
- Which do you think would be easier to live by: lots of rules for different situations or one command for every circumstance? Which would you prefer to live by? Why?
- What do you think about interpreting the 10 Commandments as explaining how to fulfil Jesus’ teaching to love God and love others? Do they help you understand how God wants you to love him and others? Or do you think they make it more difficult? Explain your thoughts…
- Luther explains the 10 Commandments both negatively and positively – what we shouldn’t do as well as what we can do to show love for God and others. Does this help you see ways in which you can love God and others?
- Which of the commandments is most difficult for you to keep? How can the forgiveness and freedom we have through faith in Jesus help you to keep that commandment better?
- Who do you know that needs the kind of love the 10 Commandments teach? How might trusting God help you love that person better this week?