Is it even possible to love God with all our hearts, souls and minds without loving our neighbors as ourselves?
To judge from what I’ve read on social media, there seems to be growing sentiment within my denomination, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that the two Great Commandments are at tension with other, that in order to follow the first Great Commandment (love God) we sometimes have to suppress our desire to follow the second (love neighbor).
However, while some have adopted such an understanding based on their interpretation of talks given by at least two Church leaders, this view is not supported by the New Testament, much less by the teachings of Jesus. Instead, the scriptural testimony is clear: The way we love God is by loving our neighbors, and when we love our neighbors we are demonstrating our love of God.
No where is this stated more directly than in King Benjamin’s sermon in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 2:17):
And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.
While the words of the New Testament are not quite as direct, they remain clear.
First, a recap: We first encounter the two Great Commandments labeled as such in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 22:36ff a lawyer approaches Jesus and asks what he thinks is a trick question: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Rather than responding with one of the Ten Commandments or something more obscure, and thus falling into the trap of suggesting that some commandments are unimportant, Jesus offers an answer designed to put all the commandments in perspective:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
So is Jesus prioritizing these two commandments? If he had done so, he would have fallen into the lawyer’s trap. Instead, he uses strong imagery in the word “hang” (the Greek word from which this is translated means exactly that) to teach that all laws and prophetic teaching rely on both of the commandments.
It is also worth examining how the Greek word translated in the King James Version as “like unto” is used elsewhere in the teachings of Jesus. (That word is hómoios, which usually means “similar” or “same” is the source of the English prefix “homo-” in words such as “homogeneous” and “homonym.” Hómoios is even a distant cousin of the words “same” and “seem.”) When that word is used elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, its meaning is stronger than what “like” or “like unto” might suggest. In fact, what follows the word is usually a restatement of what precedes.
For example, in Matthew 13 Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, that it’s like hidden treasure, and that it’s like a net. He later says that various false teachers are like whitewashed tombs (Matthew 23:27). In all these cases, what follows “like” is used to indicate the meaning of what comes before. So in his use of the Great Commandments, Jesus is saying that loving one’s neighbor is one way of explaining what it means to love God.
In the two other accounts we have of Jesus teaching the Great Commandments, Jesus takes two other approaches in emphasizing their unity:
- In Mark 12:28ff, a scribe asks Jesus what is the “first commandment [singular] of all,” and Jesus answers with both of the commandments without further prompting.
- In Luke 10:25ff, a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus answers by asking the scribe what the law says. Interestingly, although the command to love God comes from Deuteronomy and the command to love neighbor comes from Leviticus, the scribe combines them into one: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” Jesus then responds with a singular pronoun (toûto in Greek): This do, and thou shalt live.” The scribe’s quotation of the Old Testament verses as a single unit also suggests that Jesus’ early followers thought of them as a single command around the time that the Gospel of Luke was written.
The passages affirm that the two commands are inseparable: To love God and to love neighbor are just different aspects of the same command.
Of course, it wasn’t just in conjunction with the first Great Commandment that Jesus emphasized the importance of loving others. Two of the most famous passages to that end are his teaching of the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Finally, some of Jesus’ final words to his disciples before his death should put to rest the idea that the command to love others was somehow inferior to any other. “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34) Obviously, as we would normally think of it, there was nothing new about the command to love on another. But by calling the commandment new, Jesus emphasized its importance to those who would follow his teachings. In fact, Jesus said that such love would come to be sign that the person was one of followers: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35)
The New Testament teachings on the primacy of love didn’t end with the accounts of Jesus’ life. Most notably, the writer of 1 John saw that love of others was so intertwined with love of God that one can’t occur without the other: “If a man [Greek: person] say, I love God, and hateth his brother [Greek: bothers and sisters] he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” (1 John 4:20-21)
When we suggest that somehow the command to love others is inferior to the command to love God, we diminish the importance of both.
Photo of hands by Tyler Nix; licensed by Unsplash.