The Three Pillars of the Greatest Commandment

James Tissot | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: By practicing the three pillars of the Greatest Commandment – appreciation, acceptance, and sharing – we can be a complete, perfect, unique expression of God, encourage others, and return Love to its Source.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 22: 34-40

Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon.

I think it would be safe to say that most people know the Great Commandment Jesus spoke of in our scripture reading for today, or at least the Golden Rule part of it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. If that’s the case, then why are we living in a world where love appears to be so lacking.

The same was true during Jesus’ time. Most Jews knew that that they were supposed to love God and one another. Even so, there wasn’t much love going around. Most Jews knew of God as a God of justice, but there wasn’t much justice going around either.

The problem is the same today as it was back then.

After Jesus entered Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests and elders became clear. Jesus’ conflict was not only with the chief priests and elders. Jesus also had a conflict with the Pharisees because he refused to follow their “teachings of the elders.” He refused to follow them because he believed they were overly burdensome to the people. Generally speaking, the Pharisees themselves didn’t even follow them (which is partly why Jesus calls them hypocrites in the next chapter).

So, the Pharisees were also looking for opportunities to discredit Jesus. After Jesus discredits the chief priests and elders, the Pharisees attempt to trap him with a question about taxes, which Jesus successfully escapes by saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Then, the Sadducees attempt to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection of the dead, which was obviously deceitful because the Sadducees did not believe in it. The Pharisees did, so the two factions were constantly debating one another about it. Jesus’ response made it clear that he believed in the resurrection of the dead – indeed, he would soon demonstrate its truth.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Rather than being happy with the fact that Jesus actually sided with them for once, the Pharisees continued to try to discredit Jesus, so they decided to test him again with a question about the greatest commandment.

There are over 600 Torah Laws, so there was always plenty of debate over which ones were more important and which ones were less important. The man who asked Jesus “which is the greatest commandment” was an “expert in the law.”

He wasn’t a “lawyer” like we think of one. In our society, church and state are separate, so our lawyers are experts in civic law, not biblical law. For Jesus and his fellow Jews, Torah law was civic law, and these men were experts in the practical applications of it. 

This question was posed to Jesus to test his judgment, not necessarily his knowledge of the law. They probably hoped that he would answer in a way that displeased the crowd gathered that day, which would be enough to successfully discredit him.

Jesus answered the question the way the “experts of the law” would have answered it since it was known which law they had previously judged to be the greatest commandment and the sum of all the rest. Jesus obviously had no conflict with their position on this point, so to ask him this question was a bit condescending.

He knew the law, but I think what the chief priests and elders found so disturbing was the fact that he actually practiced it, which made them look bad. With their mouths they declared the Greatest Commandment, but their hearts were far from it. They were more concerned with power, not love.

The confusion many people have with the greatest commandment is a misunderstanding of the word “love.” God’s love and human love are different. Human love is exclusive; we love only certain people – usually our family members and closest friends. God’s love is inclusive; God loves everything in Creation.

Human love is finite; we might stop loving those who hurt us. God’s love is infinite; it never ends no matter what we do. Human love is conditional; it often depends on what someone can give to us. God’s love is unconditional; it’s s all about what God can give.

It has been said that we can’t love others unless we love ourselves, but I also believe that we can’t love God unless we love ourselves. I believe the foundation is love of Self (with a capital S). If we love our Self then loving God and others will naturally follow.

This is why the idea of original sin has been so damaging. We certainly can’t love ourselves with such a negative view of our nature. And how can we love a God who creates defective creatures and then punishes them for it? At most, we can fear such a God, but never love. Fortunately, we are not defective creatures, so we must start there to correct our mistaken perception of ourselves.

We have all acknowledged the truth that we are not these personal selves – these bodies with personal thoughts and feelings. These personal selves are merely tools that we use to be an expression of God in Christ. God is infinite, so God would need an infinite number of expressions to be fully expressed – to be fully known.

We can be that expression by practicing the three pillars of the Great Commandment.

The first is appreciation. How many of you have engaged in a creative piece of work? Maybe you composed a piece of music. Maybe you like to write. Maybe you like to draw, paint, or create other pieces of artwork. Maybe you like to knit or crochet. Maybe you like to cook or bake goodies.

Everything you create is a unique expression of who you are. It starts out as an idea, and then you begin to work on it, but that original idea keeps developing. There are many stages in the creation process, and each stage has value. In every stage, your creation exists in relationship to you, its creator, and in each stage, it is what it is. Sometimes, it’s a complete mess.

What you create is a unique expression of you in form. In that sense, you and it are united. There might be some challenging times in the process, but even those have value and help your creation to be all it can be, and you love it despite those challenges because it lives within you and you within it.

Now, there’s a point in which your creation is “finished.” It then becomes a static expression of who you were at a particular point in time. We live in time, so our personal selves are finite, but God lives in eternity.

God is infinite and as an expression of God, Christ is infinite – always changing and evolving –something always changing and evolving would expresses God’ infinite nature perfectly and completely.

This is difficult for us to understand since we live in time. In eternity, we can never really be “finished,” but we are nevertheless complete. This is good news because if we have this “ideal” image in our heads of who we will be when God is “finished” with us, we can burn that as a false idol. We are already complete in Christ even though we are constantly evolving. God sees each of us right now as the complete, perfect, unique expression of His infinite nature and deeply appreciates us.

Let the appreciation for the unique expression of God that you are fill you heart, allow it to extend to an appreciation of the Creator who is joined with you, loving and supporting you in every moment of your life, and let this appreciation extend to the others who are also complete, perfect, unique expressions of God as together we are all woven like unique threads in this beautiful tapestry called “Life.”

The second pillar of the Great Commandment is acceptance. If we are complete, perfect, unique expressions of God in Christ just the way we are in each moment, then we can accept the thoughts and feelings we experience without judging ourselves.

This is especially true of painful thoughts and feelings. How often do we have thoughts or feelings we wish we didn’t have? We wish we didn’t have them because they are painful, and most of the time, we feel pain because we are believing lies.

These lies are judgments that enter the mind, but they do not come from the Mind of Christ. Thoughts and feelings that come from the Mind of Christ are always in the moment. They aren’t generated by regrets about the past or predictions about the future. They don’t protest what is because it already is.

I’ve been feeling impatient a lot these days. Everything seems to take longer to happen, right? So, I’ve been calling myself an “impatient person,” which has been painful because it’s not the truth.

Just because I feel impatient now and have felt impatient in the past doesn’t justify a future prediction about how I will act. Impatient feelings don’t make me an “impatient person.” But if I slap an “impatient person” label on myself, I will more likely act impatiently – thus fulfilling my own prophecy.

Even though I feel impatient, I often choose to act with patience. That is a present moment inspiration coming from who I really am – from the Christ within.

Lies might enter our minds about others as well. We might feel uncomfortable in the presence of someone who is gossiping about another person. What often happens is that simple feeling of discomfort quickly turns into disgust as we imagine that that person has probably gossiped about us behind our backs too and will do so in the future, so we choose to stay away from that “gossiper” and all those other “gossipers” that we see them talking to.

In that single moment, we imagine a past that may not exist and predetermine who that one person and all those other people are and how they will act in the future. Instead, we might simply accept our discomfort and choose to politely excuse ourselves. That inspiration comes from the Christ in the present moment.

This is why Jesus taught us not to judge others. We judge ourselves in the same way we judge others. Judgment is how we create the many layers concealing the Christ within others and ourselves. We don’t see ourselves or them in the present moment; we see only the layers of judgements.

The only way we can become expressions of God in form is to have a form – a human self. As human beings, lies will naturally come into our minds. We can accept this without believing them. If we don’t believe them, then we won’t react to them in unloving ways.

We can choose to appreciate and accept ourselves and our brothers and sisters in the present moment and act out of that appreciation and acceptance. When we do, we are the extension of God’s Love we were created to be. In fact, the words “appreciation” and “acceptance” are good words to describe the “attitude” of God’s Love.

The third pillar of the Great Commandment is sharing. If appreciation and acceptance are the “attitude” pillars, then this one is the “action” pillar. Acceptance is not passive. Jesus certainly was not passive when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and merchants in the Temple. He dealt with the situation in the moment without judging the people involved. He felt anger, and he acted in the moment without really hurting anyone – only their wealth and pride.

After Jesus cleared out the Temple, he shared something we all have to share – our time and attention. People came to him, and he lovingly gave them his time and attention. No matter how little time we have, it’s not so little that we can’t give someone “the time of day” – a simple gesture like a smile or a nod toward a complete stranger just to let them know we acknowledge their existence. Something as simple as that can make someone’s day.

It is very loving to take the time to really listen to someone. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced what it’s like to have a conversation with someone who really listens, and I don’t mean in a clinical way, like a therapist who would ask, “So tell me, how did that make you feel?” Most people don’t want to feel like they’re talking to a therapist – unless of course they’ve hired one and are paying for it.

What really helps both speakers and listeners to feel connected is when listeners are quiet but use good eye contact and facial expressions to indicate that they are truly listening. They speak sparingly – only to ask relevant questions or rephrase what the person has said to make sure they understand.

We think it’s helpful to share our experiences, but most of the time, it isn’t. It can be a form of giving unasked-for advice. Most people would rather figure things out for themselves, and they will, if we lovingly give them our time and attention – the “space” to talk about it.

Everything in creation was given to us by God, not to hoard, but to share with others. One of God’s laws we have difficulty understanding is that when we give, we receive. We always get something in return for what we give especially if it was given in love with no strings attached.

In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. A landowner had such an abundant harvest that he didn’t have big enough barns to store it all. He had this brilliant idea to tear down the old ones and build bigger ones so that he could sit back, relax, and enjoy life.

We might think that the landowner was being smart, but God called him a fool saying, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Instead of taking the opportunity to share, all that surplus will end up rotting in his barns.

So, if we have more than we need, we should give away the excess to someone who needs it. We receive the blessing of having less to manage, but we also open our lives up to receive new gifts from God – like something we need.

Sharing talents is part of appreciation and acceptance. We need to appreciate that as a unique creation, we have unique gifts and talents, but we must accept those gifts and talents in order to share them.

Part of that acceptance is accepting the fact that we don’t have certain gifts and talents. We often compare ourselves to others, wishing that God had given us what they have, but that just keeps us from appreciating and using what God has given us.

I’ve always been intrigued by people like Sylvia Browne who was one of the greatest psychics of our time – how she was able to communicate directly with her spirit guides and other disembodied entities and as a medium give comfort to those grieving the loss of loved ones. She even had telepathic abilities.

I’m no psychic, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be one. But I do know that God loves me just as I am and has already given me exactly what I need be a complete, perfect, one-of-a-kind expression of Him in each present moment. Because of that, I can choose to appreciate myself, accept myself, and confidently express myself in each of those moments, and I can give that appreciation, acceptance, and encouragement to others.

By loving ourselves and others we return love to its Source. That is what the Greatest Commandment calls us all to do.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to appreciate and accept ourselves as God created us and to act lovingly using the resources, gifts, and talents we have been given. May this appreciation and acceptance inspire us to act lovingly in each present moment of our lives as we extend God’s Love to others. AMEN.

Resources:

Perron, Mari. A Course of Love. Combined volume, Kindle ed. 2nd ed. Take Heart Publications, 2019.

Pearson, Stephen. A Faith of Love: Teachings of the Greatest Commandment. Kindle ed. 2017.