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The Greatest Commandment

On Sunday, 25th October Rev. Chaplain David Reid, a member of our congregation, led the service. He took the time to remind us how important it is to hold the well known words in our hearts, and to apply them to all that we do.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Matthew 22:34-46

Twenty-eight words are all that it takes for Jesus to spell out the Greatest Commandment.

In Mathew 22:36 we find Jesus being challenged by a Pharisee lawyer, the Pharisees were a minority group of Jews who were a small brotherhood that pledged to follow every detail of Jewish scribal law. On that day the Pharisee lawyer was attempting to entrap Jesus into making a statement that might contravene the scribal law as written in Deuteronomy the fifth book of the Torah – the Hebrew bible. The question the Pharisee asked was: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Now Jesus had grown up in the Jewish faith and every Jewish boy would have recited the Shema [she-ma] in their daily prayers. This is the Shema prayer taken from the Book of Deuteronomy:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

We can see in Jesus’s answer how mindful he was about the question and how he carefully crafted his response to the Pharisee lawyer. In the scripture as written in English we see that Jesus modified his response to change “Might” as it is written in Deuteronomy to “Mind” as it is written in Mathew. This difference may well be the result of translation, Jesus spoke to the Pharisee in Aramaic, but Deuteronomy was written in Hebrew. In Hebrew the word might is “mo’ed” and can translate to mean strength or will. So, we see that Jesus was bringing a clearer understanding by introducing the concept of the mind or will power. A concept that we can readily understand two thousand years on.

We read these words in English and we must always remind ourselves that Jesus spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, the words we read have been transcribed and translated many times, first into Greek and then into English. This process of interpretation from one language to another has a latent risk of altering what was said in the original language. If only we had YouTube two thousand years ago imagine how many views and likes the scriptures would have now!

The Greatest Commandment causes us all to ask the question: How well have we as a society done in this regard. How would God score our progress in the 21st century – almost 2000 years after Jesus gave us the Greatest Commandment? I will cite three examples for us to consider and reflect on.

1. For the past two millenia – any student of history knows that “we the people” have experienced numerous conflicts involving one group exerting power and authority over another, often to gain land or resources. For some 500 years the European monarchies sought to gain control over foreign lands in order to create their colonial empires. They were even encouraged and given license to take over the land of indigenous people under the authority of the Pope Alexander VI. Most notably the Papal directive of 1493 known as the “Doctrine of Discovery.” This empowered the Colonialists to colonize and seize the lands of indigenous people. A series of directives from the Catholic Church empowered European Christian monarchies to begin the roots of white supremacy because the Church gave them divine powers to rule. The Papal directive of 1493 was designed to justify the Spanish mission to colonize the America’s in effect providing cover to the expeditions of Christopher Columbus in 1492 to what is now the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti. It was Columbus that gave the indigenous people of the America’s the name “Indios” or “Indians.” Columbus arrived back to Spain in early 1493 and the Catholic Pope in concert with the government of Spain acted to provide the authority for the seizure of these lands. You might well ask at this point: How did Pope Alexander VI rationalize the Doctrine of Discovery with the teachings of the Greatest Commandment? This is a question which has been ongoing within Christian faiths. It was 2009 before the Episcopal Church repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery as have many other US based faiths, sadly the Vatican has yet to do so.

You might think that such a legal concept would not be fit for the 21st century, however that legal precedent still remains upheld by the US Supreme Court because of a case heard in 1823 called Johnson vs Mcintosh. In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote; “That the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” This is part of US Federal law and has been used to deprive the Native American people of their land. How does a nation like the United States which embraces Christian values with statements such as “In God We Trust” on every dollar bill equate the treatment of the indigenous native Americans with the Greatest Commandment? This is a question that remains as a serious gap in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Reflecting the shift in understanding; 14 US States and 130 Cities have now changed the Columbus day holiday to Indigenous Peoples Day.

2. The enslavement of African people that brought huge profits to all those who transported, bartered, used and abused millions of lives was done by nations who claimed to follow a Christian ethic. Even when slavery was banned in 1833. Four years later the British Government appeased the powerful by paying compensation not to the victims of slavery. NO, they paid compensation to all the slave owners. A vast sum of money was paid out equivalent to $1.8 billion today. That money was borrowed and was not paid back until 2014 – meaning that successive generations of UK Taxpayers bore the cost through taxation. Since the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis, many UK institutions are now having to openly admit that their prior wealth came from this compensation. The information on who received the compensation is freely available on the University College London website. My own research revealed that the minister, the Rev John Ashley who began the mission to seafarers was himself a beneficiary of such compensation because his Father had owned slaves in Jamaica. We can now understand that the business of slavery was conducted by many who also claimed to be Christian. How did they equate their actions with the 28 words of The Greatest Commandment? Today, the failure to abide by the Greatest Commandment is a root cause of racism.

3. In the past week Pope Francis has said the following as part of a documentary film called “Francesco”:

“Homosexual people have the right to be in a family. They are children of God. You can’t kick someone out of a family, nor make their life miserable for this. What we have to have is a civil union law; that way they are legally covered.”

The statement by Pope Francis makes Francis the first pontiff to endorse same-sex civil unions.

Perhaps Pope Francis is simply applying the Greatest Commandment, it has taken two thousand years for the Vatican to reach this point.

Just three examples of how we the people have failed to follow the Greatest Commandment? Sadly, there are many more and this begs the question; why do we struggle to follow the Greatest Commandments. After all they are not difficult to understand. Perhaps it is because there is what an Italian entrepreneur once shared with me the “Version of the Facts.” My friend Mauro or Mr T as we liked to call him had a theory that everything could be explained by the “Version of the Facts.” One of his favorite examples was that Italians had their own version of the facts regarding Italy’s role in WW2. Simply put, there was only one Italian fascist supporting the Nazi’s, that was Benito Mussolini, every other Italian was in the Resistance! Mr T came from Genoa the home of Christopher Columbus and his simple concept describes how people who claimed to be Christians have rationalized their actions to differentiate their religious belief in The Greatest Commandment and those actions which they believed did not fall within that prescription. We see this in the Doctrine of Discovery where indigenous natives are deemed as non-Christian therefore, they are not worthy of being a neighbor. In the period of slavery, the African people were considered simply as a commodity and the US Congress determined that each slave was just three-fifths of a white person. In the Catholic Church the LGBTQ community have been differentiated and only in the past week has Pope Francis accepted that they are also children of God. We need to adhere to the Greatest Commandment; To love with all our mind, and steer clear of any form of rationalization where we create a Version of the Facts to enable some alternative action.

Earlier I mentioned the challenge of translation and we also need to make sure that we fully understand the complete meaning of the Greatest Commandment. The big question about the use of the English verb; To Love is that we are using a verb that describes emotional feelings that play a central role in our personal relationships. Jesus gave us these rules as actions to live our lives, not as emotional feelings.

The scriptures were translated from Hebrew to Greek. In Greek there are seven different words that describe different aspects of love. Agápe is the Greek word that describes empathetic love and 13th century scholar Thomas Aquinas described Agápe as “To will the good of another.” Some religious scholars say that the correct translation is that we should give preference to God in all that we do and in the second commandment we should give preference to our neighbor in the same way that we would prefer to be treated. This is the basis for the Golden Rule which is evident in all major religious faiths.

As we then reflect on the Greatest Commandment, we will do better to understand that Jesus is asking us first to give preference to God in our heart, our soul and our mind and second to give preference to others in the same way as we prefer ourselves. Jesus was the great challenger, and this is evident throughout scripture. He challenges the money lenders in the temple, he visited with people who were considered to be on the fringe of society. Jesus preached where the people lived. Jesus said place God first in your life and treat others as you would treat yourself.

The Gospel from Mathew contains the two anchors that will always keep us secure as we journey through life. The first: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. The second: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. In just 28 words we discover the prescription for life – just 28 words. During the many times in my life when I have felt adrift or in distress. These 28 words have given me comfort.

My blessing for you all today is that you place God as your preferred choice and apply the Golden Rule in everything you do. Never, Never, Never, resort to a Version of the Facts to justify or substantiate a deviation from the Greatest Commandment.


Rev. Chaplain David Reid MA AFNI

25 October, 2020

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