Reading the Bible in light of the Greatest Commandment

“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. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 33:36-40

I probably read those verses a thousand times in my life without understanding their full implication. I always saw them for the importance that Jesus placed on love – loving God, loving others – but it pretty much ended there. Just another bunch of verses in the entirety of the bible, standing alone.

Years ago, though, I read “The Jesus Creed” by Scot McKnight, and it has utterly changed my view of this text. Note the last line – ‘All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments’. That’s a huge statement, and deserves some unpacking.

First, note that it doesn’t contain any exclusions. To obey the law, to follow the prophets, is to love God and others. Said another way, if anyone tries to obey the law without loving others – or, more directly, obey the law in a way that actively harms others – they are doing it wrong. So many times in the Gospels, Jesus is confronted by Pharisees doing the Biblical, lawful thing, and Jesus berates them because they are using the law to justify mistreatment of other people. For Jesus, the heart behind the law is more critical than the law itself. We are no less guilty than the Pharisees were when we make the same mistake.

Let’s take this even one step farther, though. If all of the law and prophets hinge on those two commandments, then we can also assume that every single law in the bible has to be read the same way. In other words, when reading biblical law or books of Prophecy, they become the interpretive filter by which we must use to decipher their meaning. (Note that I’d exclude history and poetry from this, not because they aren’t part of God’s imperative to love, but because the former is reporting events that may or may not be positive expressions of God’s will, and the latter in some cases is expressing human emotion and not a command).

I’ll be the first to admit that interpreting law in terms of loving others is not always easy. Consider the following verse:

“Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.” – Exodus 21:20-21

Two things stand out here. First, the bible seems to be implicitly endorsing slavery and the idea that a person can be another person’s property. Second, it seems to explicitly endorse the idea that a slave can be beaten to almost the point of death. Such things are abhorrent now; and if God’s morality is unchanging through time, how can we possibly feel that if God endorse such things thousands of years ago, they are wrong today?

Not to mention, a slave is an “other’. How can we possibly interpret this verse in light of loving others when it’s very obvious that beating someone else to the point of death is hardly loving them? How do we make sense of this?

I think the answer lies in how we interpret the bible, and even the nature of inspiration. If we believe that the biblical authors were simply dictating the words of God, then those words belong to God and must be universal and timeless. We really don’t have much of a choice but to accept their truth, even in modern times. Things like cultural differences cannot be called into play because God surpasses culture.

Let’s consider an alternative, though. Let’s say God’s inspiration is not the placing of words into the author’s mind, but the placing of ideas. Through experience and gentle guiding, God ensures that the author is in a place where they become inspired to write what God wants them to write, in their own words and using their own knowledge and life experience to do so. The words aren’t God’s, the ideas are; and if that’s the case, then it’s the ideas behind the words that become of prime importance.

This isn’t such a wild idea and is supported by the bible itself. Luke talks of an extensive interview process as he gathered information to write Luke and Acts. John says he’s testifying to everything he saw. Even Paul inserts his own “asides”, where he expresses personal opinion. If you think about it, words are incredibly hard to translate at times. The bible was written for all people of all cultures and languages, for all times. Our impetus as Christians is to take the gospel to others, not to bring them here, which supports the idea that we take the bible to other languages rather than forcing Christians to learn another language in order to read scripture. Words are next to impossible to universally translate, but ideas are much easier. Ideas play to universal truths in a way that phrases never can.

If this is the case, then it should drive how we read the bible. If ideas are more important than words, then this means that book, chapters and paragraphs are more important than verses. To understand a verse isn’t to understand what it means by itself but what it means in context around it. And, to properly understand the context, one must view the words in light of the cultures in which they were written, where an author writing from his own worldview is using terms he understands in which to express the ideas God had placed inside him. Please don’t misunderstand, what is being said expresses exactly what God wants it to.

So, this brings us back to our verse in Exodus. How is this seen in light of what I have just said? Well, the words would belong to the man that wrote them. A man for whom God had put on his heart a concern for the conditions of the society he saw around him. A concern for those who could not protect themselves. Obviously, people beating their slaves to death was a problem, and the intent here is to fix that problem. It is the correcting of a social ill by someone who is still a product of his society; he’s not a 21st-century American who has thousands of years of history behind him revealing the evils of slavery and the promise of freedom, but a contemporary of a society in which the freedoms we enjoy are not even a remote possibility yet.

And what are we to learn? That everybody is a child of God, a human being created in God’s image worthy of our protection and concern. That rings true for all people, all languages, all cultures and for all time.

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