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The Great Commandment

David Cowles

Jul 13, 2022

“The second is like it…” Really? The second is like it? Like it? At first glance, this seems ridiculous. The two verses don’t look alike at all. One concerns our relationship with God, the Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth; the other concerns our relationship with the jerk down the street who doesn’t mow his lawn and plays his music loud on Saturday nights.

“The whole law and the prophets depend on…” (Mt. 22: 35-40)

Ok, you’ve got my attention! The five books of Moses, the Torah, and the 18 books of prophecy found in the Old Testament (OT) depend on… depend on what?

(With the mindset of a superannuated sophomore, I’m always looking for the Cliffs Notes version of everything, and this promises to be the mother of all Cliffs Notes.)

Let me get this straight: someone has managed to shrink 23 books of the Bible (Law + Prophets), 600 pages of densely packed text, down to just six verses? Wait ‘til I tell the kids at school about this! All I can say is, “Thank you, Jesus!”

Now at this point, you’re expecting me to say something like, “Not so fast!” But no, not this time! This is one time when the reality lives up to the hype.

The so-called Great Commandment appears in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) but it originates in the Torah (OT). Check it out:

“…A scholar of the law (scribe) tested him (Jesus) by asking, ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He (Jesus) said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.’” (Mt. 22: 35-40)

In answering the scribe, Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus:

“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and your whole being, and with your whole strength.” (Dt. 6: 4-5)

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lv. 19: 18b)

Scholars believe that these two Old Testament verses were already linked before the time of Jesus. The Torah (‘law’) consists of 613 precepts; these two precepts are thought to summarize the other 611. Therefore, it was quite reasonable for Jesus to say, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

But is the Great Commandment two commandments…or one?

The scribe did not ask Jesus to name the greatest commandments (plural), but rather the greatest commandment (singular). Nor did he object to Jesus’s answer. Unlike some modern-day media personalities, he did not say, “Rabbi, with all due respect, you didn’t answer my question.”

Why? Because Jesus did answer his question! In Mark’s version of the story (Mk. 12: 28 – 34), the scribe replies to Jesus, “Well said, teacher, you are right…”

The genius lies in the link! Jesus does not say that the second is almost as important as the first or that it logically follows from the first; he says it is “like” the first. How should we understand this ‘like?’

  • That love of God and love of neighbor are co-equal aspects of a single law?

  • That there is one ‘Great Commandment,’ but it can be stated in two different ways…and applied differently in two different contexts?

  • That one cannot truly love God without loving one’s neighbor, and one cannot truly love one’s neighbor without loving God?

  • That loving God is loving neighbor, and loving neighbor is loving God?

And the answer is: “All of the above!” It is together that these two precepts form “the greatest and first commandment.”

Either verse, without the other, may be valid and binding, but it is not the Great Commandment. “The whole law and the prophets” do not depend on either one of these precepts alone, or even on both precepts separately, but on both together: 1 + 1 = 3.

This structure might have been challenging for some of Jesus’s contemporaries, but it should not be challenging for us. We know, for example, that ‘quanta’ cannot be explained as either particles or waves; their behavior can only be explained if we understand that they are both particles and waves. We call this relationship complementarity, and clearly the two verses of the Great Commandment need to be understood this way.

We also understand the notion of synergy. Together, as a single commandment, these two precepts mean much more than the two of them by themselves. That’s what makes this commandment “the greatest” and why we are still writing about it more than 2,000 years later.

Yet, the revolutionary nature of the Great Commandment is easy to miss. Love God and love your neighbor: ho-hum, Sunday school 101. Right? Wrong! That is NOT what’s happening here!

Back to the text! “The second is like it…” Really? The second is like it? Like it? At first glance, this seems ridiculous. The two verses don’t look alike at all. One concerns our relationship with God, the Almighty, the creator of heaven and earth; the other concerns our relationship with the jerk down the street who doesn’t mow his lawn and plays his music loud on Saturday nights.

By saying, “The second is like it,” Jesus is effectively saying that love of God and love of Jerk (neighbor) are one and the same thing. That’s revolutionary! But it’s not just that that is revolutionary. Jesus quotes Leviticus, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Not like yourself but as yourself! This is so revolutionary that it’s almost impossible to grasp. Love my neighbor as myself? As…as myself? Do you really mean to say that my neighbor is me and that I am my neighbor? Preposterous!

Of course in certain respects, I am not my neighbor. We have different genetic make-ups, different experiences and memories, different opinions on many, if not all, issues. Yet, ontologically speaking, I most certainly am my neighbor! In the language of existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, we each have the exact same essence (‘freedom’) and the exact same mis-en-scene with respect to the world (‘facticity’).

In the language of structuralism, identity is not a characteristic of subjects but of relations; my neighbor and I are identically related to the world around us. That is our shared ‘identity’. In the language of Medieval Philosophy, my neighbor and I have different ‘accidents,’ but the same ‘substance.’ In every important way, I am my neighbor, no matter how unalike we may be.

For the most part, Jesus’s audience understood and accepted the need to love God, but they struggled with the bit about the ‘neighbor.’ In the Gospel of Luke, the scribe follows up on Jesus’s exposition of the Great Commandment with a question: “And who is my neighbor?” – one of the most penetrating questions of all time and a question we are still hotly debating today. Jesus responds with the famous story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 – 29).

In our era, the problem is reversed. It has become quite fashionable to love one’s neighbor – or at least to profess to love one’s neighbor. Humanism, Globalism, Environmentalism, New Age Philosophy, Social Democracy, even Communism, all proclaim ‘love of neighbor.’ On the other hand, you dear readers, you may well be asking yourselves the opposite question, “Why do we need to love God in order to love our neighbors? Do we even need to believe in God? In fact, why do we need God at all? Isn’t love of neighbor enough?”

In this way, our generation has turned the scribes of Jesus’s time on their heads. To our generation, the notion that love of God is essential to love of neighbor is just as perplexing as the idea that love of neighbor is essential to love of God was to Jesus’s contemporaries. That is what makes the Great Commandment so profoundly revolutionary…and forever relevant. It is always counter-cultural! Right away, that’s a clue that something really important is happening here.

When I look at an inanimate object, I see a potential tool, or obstacle, or perhaps I see a thing of beauty to be enjoyed for itself, but I do not see myself. When I look at you on the other hand, really look, something amazing happens, I see myself looking back. Seeing myself in you enables me to recognize who I am in relation to the world. Without you, could I see myself as anything other than an object among objects? Without you, would I be anything other than an object among objects? Would I ‘see’ myself at all? Would I be I? Would I even be…?

It is you who reveals me to myself! Although I am of the world and in the world, I transcend the world, but I only discover that transcendence through you. In fact, I only transcend the world through ‘relationships.’ You are my gateway to myself!

But what if you (or God) were not there? What if I was alone in a world of inanimate objects? Would I really be just another object among them?

According to Psalm 135, the answer could well be yes: “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but do not speak; they have ears but do not hear; nor is there breath in their mouths. Their makers, and anyone who trusts in them, will become like them.”

Of course, we know that these idols are nothing other than lumps of rock or clay or wood. So far as we know, they do not ‘experience’ and if they do not experience then we, who are ‘like them,' do not experience either.

So, no experience? So what? Well, it all comes down to Bishop Berkley’s famous question: if a universe exists but no one experiences it, does that universe exist at all?

Look to science. Quantum mechanics has shown us that experience (e.g., measurement) is an integral part of what makes ‘reality’ real. The linear (billiard ball) world imagined by Laplace is not real. Experience is a fundamental quality of reality as we know it. No experience, no reality; no neighbor, no self!

In the real world, there is reflection, there is experience, there is agency, there is freedom. But where did this come from? Even famous atheists agree that it could not have evolved naturally out of a pre-existent, inanimate world. For example, Nietzsche writes, “…there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…but nothing exists apart from the whole.” And A.J. Ayer agrees, “There are no such things as objective moral values.”

But apparently Nietzsche and Ayer are wrong. I do judge, measure, compare and condemn (especially ‘condemn’) all the time, and when I do, I refer to objective (i.e., transcendent) standards. Now I may misconstrue or misapply those standards, but that doesn’t make them any less objective…or normative. So, there is an element in the world that stands apart from the world, that transcends the world, that judges the world, and that element could not have evolved naturally out of a purely inanimate world. It must coexist with the world as a fundamental structure of Being.

That universal but transcendent element is what we call God.

Essentially, God is Beauty, Truth, Justice, et al. These values constitute God’s nature and, according to both Sartre and Aquinas (strange bedfellows), these values are God. Existentially, God is the uber-neighbor, the universal you.

Otherness, you-ness, neighbor-ness is a fundamental structure of our world. There is no ‘world’ without it. And therefore, God is fundamental to the structure of our world. Therefore, you cannot truly love your neighbor without loving God any more than you can truly love God without loving your neighbor. That’s the Great Commandment!

And all I can say is, “Thank you, Jesus!”


David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at

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