“‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to them, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This the greatest and first commandment. And a second it like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.'”
~ Matthew 22.36-40, NRSV
“Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
First John 4.20-21, NRSV
The lawyer asks the question of Jesus Christ not to better his walk with the Lord or to understand what is required of him as a believer but to test him. Thinking himself smart and Jesus the same or perhaps, a lesser man, he calls Jesus teacher but he tests him. The lawyer is a part of the plot of the Pharisees to stump Jesus since just a few verses over he had embarrassed the Sadducees into silence (22.34).
And this is situation is no different as Jesus answers the question even better than was expected. He adds value to a question meant to undermine him and demonstrates why we call him Teacher, summarizing and reducing 613 laws to just two: “He said to them, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This the greatest and first commandment. And a second it like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.'”
The first commandment is the greatest though there is another law that is like it. It has a twin though not identical. Still, you won’t see one without the other. They are connected, share the same DNA and are closely related.
We don’t talk about it as much or hear it declared from the pews on Sunday morning. It’s not our favorite, the black sheep scripture that we do not want to claim though we can’t deny it. No, it is much easier to say, “I love the Lord” than “I love my neighbor.” It makes us sound good, feel righteous and look ‘holy’ when we say that we love the Lord with all of our heart, soul and mind. And perhaps, it is easier to love God because he first loved us (First John 4.19).
Or, maybe God is easier to love because we love God the way that we want to and when we have time to and when we feel like it. We don’t feel bad about neglecting our relationship because God is all- knowing and all- understanding. We excuse our absence and speak for God, saying, “He understands.”
But the second commandment to love our neighbor. We, like the lawyer, try to get around it. We ask, “Who is my neighbor?” If it is geographical, then I will create an exclusive community of people that I like and can see myself loving. We can love these kinds of neighbors. If not, then we make ridiculous, absurd and impossible attempts to “dehumanize” our neighbor. We use our racial imagination and make them animals so that we can take away their voice. Consequently, we speak for them and say, “They didn’t want us to love them.”
This second commandment is the hardest– not because of who our neighbor is or what she’s done but because of us. We know who we are and what we’ve done. And while we would like to say that God does not love us; it is but a projection. God is but a screen. We do not love ourselves and do not believe ourselves to be worthy of the love of others.
This is why we created race; it is because we know that we are sinners. Consequently, the love of God for us remains so unbelievable, that God would love us while sinners, as sinners yet sinning, still wrong (Romans 5.8). We make believe that we are great through the social coloring of skin in order to make ourselves feel as if we do not need God’s love. We don’t want to be loved as we are but as we want to be.
We too find it unbelievable that we are sinners so we create our own standard of righteousness and avert the designation altogether. The argument changes from sin is wrong to black is wrong and “white is right.” It changes the appearance of evil to a physical one and not a soul condition. You have to be a white person, look this way and not live this way.
Still, the second commandment confronts and challenges us with a relentless, unaccommodating and unapologetic truth: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Its practice is predicated upon self- love. If you don’t love yourself (not narcissistically but normally, naturally), you will not be able to love your neighbor so we cannot love God. And if we say that we love God, we lie. We don’t love God or our neighbor and it is proven by our self- hatred– not the social construct of race. This is why the commandment is hard.
It is because we would much rather follow the first commandment of race: to hate than to follow the greatest commandment of God: to love.