God’s Greatest Commandment

The mercy which God commissions us to spread in loving our neighbors is not intended to end with just any need being met; it is intended to end with their deepest need being met.

When pressed by the Pharisees and scholars of the law to clarify the greatest commandment, Jesus of course responds that it is essentially the first of the Ten Commandments: Love the Lord, your God, with all of your heart, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength (Mt 22: 34-40). But he doesn’t stop there. Although he was only asked which one commandment was the greatest, Jesus goes on to announce the second, which he says is like the first, which is to love your neighbor as yourself. Furthermore, Jesus proclaims that the entire law and the words of the prophets depend on these two commandments. 

Why does Jesus’ answer go beyond the confines of the question? Why does he feel the need to elaborate? Isn’t loving God enough? Cannot the law and the prophets depend sufficiently on the first and greatest commandment?

It is a curious nuance that we often overlook, and in a way, has become a bit of a trite remark. “Love thy neighbor…” Many people don’t even know their neighbors, much less love them. My neighbors happen to be my in-laws; I’ll let you decide whether that puts me at an advantage or disadvantage in this task. The fact remains, Jesus necessarily included the commandment to love thy neighbor as yourself and stated that it, along with the love of God, are the commandments on which everything else depends. 

How should we live out this commandment? What is required? Two questions must be answered first: What does it mean to love my neighbor? And who is my neighbor? 

To answer the first, we will actually start with the second. Who is my neighbor? Of course, Jesus also has an answer for this in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). At the end of the parable, Jesus asks which of the three who encountered the man beaten on the side of the road were his neighbors? The lawyer who began the conversation with Jesus replied, “The one who showed him mercy,” to which Jesus responds, “You go, and do likewise.” Here, Jesus adds the powerful quality of mercy to the commandment of loving they neighbor. 

Our love of neighbor must be directed to those who need to experience the mercy of God. Many times, we find our hearts wishing for people to experience the judgment of God, depending on the types of signs we find in their lawns. Jesus, conversely, did not come to bring judgement, but mercy. Don’t worry justice warriors, judgement will still come and I’m sure his wrath will burn hot, but our hearts are better matured in desiring his mercy. 

The Samaritan in the parable was a cultural enemy of the man beaten on the side of the road. By society’s standards, he should be the last person to help much less put up a significant financial gift. They are on different teams, from different parties, have different values. But the mercy of God transcends all of this. His mercy drives and initiates love of neighbor. His mercy opens doors and builds bridges. 

The mercy which God commissions us to spread in loving our neighbors is not intended to end with just any need being met, but with their deepest need being met. Their deepest need and most meaningful response to their misery is a relationship and union with the Living God. Every act of mercy has this as the aim. To love our neighbor means to show mercy in a way that leads to an encounter with God. Our merciful acts should make room for the proclamation of the source of mercy, the salvation of Jesus Christ.

One of the popular magicians from the Las Vegas show “Penn and Teller,” who is an atheist, once explained in an interview that he is not offended when Christians attempt to evangelize him. The way he sees it is that if these people really believe that there is a God who is in Heaven, which is paradise, and the only way to get to this Heaven when we die is to believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and if we don’t we face eternal damnation, then someone must really have to hate another person to not try to share this news with them. 

So, the final question is one we must ask ourselves: Will we love our neighbors or will we deprive them of the opportunity for lasting relationship with Jesus Christ? 

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.