The greatest commandment or the greatest promise? (Matthew 22:36-40)


Question: I was reading Matthew 22:36-40. In the NIV, it says: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” In the NASV, it says: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And 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 great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Upon these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.”

I found it interesting that the NIV leaves off the “You Shall,” but the NASV includes it. If you take the NIV version to heart, you will likely find yourself in a spiritual quandary, for it is clear none of us will ever be able to keep this command to love anything (except perhaps our ego) with our whole heart, soul, mind. We seem destined to fail, if this is the greatest commandment. Now if I come back and add the “You shall” from the NASV, the thing you thought you had to do, but discover you cannot, becomes a promise for our destiny and reality instead of a curse of failure. What are your thoughts?

Response: The fact that on Jesus’s lips in Matthew, the “You shall love” from Deuteronomy is quoted as a simple future active indicative 2nd person singular verb is really cool. “Shall” is just archaic English that doesn’t mean “should.” I think versions use it because it sounds spiritual or King James or something. But it simply means “you will.” The Pharisee refers to this as a commandment, but all of creation is a commandment. God speaks his Word, and everything happens…until he says, “you will love,” and the plot thickens—how come we haven’t loved? But God says we will love. What’s stronger: my sin or God’s Will? I think this is the fascinating tension set up in the first two chapters of Genesis…how could anything, or anyone, NOT do what God commands. He speaks worlds into existence. So when I sin, am I doing anything or simply creating a false reality? This is what the Fathers meant by the “ontological non-subsistence of evil.” I think this gets back to the mystery of the tree in the Garden. If I take the commandment as a law that I must fulfill, it kills me. But if I take the law as a promise that God is fulfilling, I receive life. The first is justifying myself in the power of the flesh. The second is faith by Grace. And of course we must all do both on our way to becoming the finished image of God. I think it’s interesting to ask the question about Jesus himself (the Commandment/Word of God in flesh). Is He a law (knowledge of Good and Evil that I can take and apply to myself) or is he the Promise of Love (The Grace of God given to me)? I think all of this shows up at the very start of Scripture and is woven through until we see the tree of life in the Garden City of the New Jerusalem.

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