The Law and the Prophets Depend on Us
At first it seems as though there are very few surprises for us in our gospel today.
The scene is familiar to us: the Pharisees and Sadducees are stirring up trouble with Jesus, as usual, and Jesus masterfully handles them with a mixture of kindness, authority, and flawless command of the scriptures.
And, of course, Jesus’ answer to their question, what is the greatest commandment, is very familiar to us: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
It’s hard to preach on this passage, because essentially, Jesus has wrapped up the substance and goals of our entire Christian life in a few short sentences.
Love God and love your neighbor. That pretty much covers it.
Simple, straightforward, easy to remember, and the work of a lifetime.
But the wonderful thing about Jesus is that every word he speaks is so rich with multilayered meaning that we can mine it for years and be struck by new revelation every time we open the gospel.
What intrigues me, as I study these familiar words this time around, is his final sentence: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Let’s take some time to examine these words.
The people to whom Jesus was speaking were raised on the Hebrew scriptures, Jews who strove to live by the law and built the meaning of their lives around the sweeping witness of the prophets.
The crowd of bystanders would have understood that the Pharisees had asked Jesus a trick question.
How could Jesus name a greatest commandment?
Everyone knew the Ten Commandments, but there were over six hundred commandments in the Hebrew scriptures, and theoretically they could all be of equal value.
But Jesus shows his authority both as a rabbi and teacher and as the Son of the Living God by proclaiming the priorities of God’s people: loving God and loving one another.
So he silences and astonishes the Pharisees by simultaneously answering and refusing to answer their question: he does prioritize love of God and neighbor above all other commandments in the law, but he chooses two commandments to place at the top, not just one.
Jesus thus shows the Pharisees in one simple stroke that he cannot be bound by their rules and rhetorical traps, but also that he can beat them at their own game, all while being reverently faithful to the heritage and tradition of Israel.
But as in everything Jesus does, he takes it one step further than anyone expects him to.
He says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In other words, the law and the prophets depend on our loving God and our neighbors.
No wonder the Pharisees were dumbstruck.
The law and prophets represent the fundamental order in a world of chaos.
The law and the prophets govern every moment of every day for the Hebrew people, especially for experts in the observation of the commandments like the Pharisees.
To be told that the massive edifice of the five books of Moses, all of the histories and all of the wisdom writings—everything that makes the world makes sense—depends on the actions of the individual is a lot to take in.
It’s a lot to take in for us, too, but it holds up theologically. We are created in the image of God, and thus in some sense we are co-creators with God.
God created the world by speaking the eternal Word, and the ways we communicate with God and one another have creative or destructive power.
When we interact with the world out of love, we infuse life into creation.
When we interact with the world out of hatred and indifference, we allow God’s fragile creatures, including our own souls, to wither and die.
Let’s turn these words another way to get a different look at them. We are examining the idea that the existence of the law and the prophets depend upon our own actions and decisions.
We know who represented the law and the prophets in this original conversation in Jesus’ time: the Pharisees.
And the Pharisees did not want to hear that their job security was threatened if the people reimagined their relationship to God and one another.
Could the same thing not be said for the law and the prophets today?
Who takes the role of the law and the prophets in our own time?
We can find positive and negative candidates vying for the roles.
There are many destructive influences that would portray themselves as having law-giving and prophesying power.
Think of teenage girls reading fashion magazines: the law is that you must have only one body type and the prophecy is that you will never find a partner if you don’t fit the narrow image.
Think of anxious American consumers losing sleep over the stock market: the law is that money is the only worthy pursuit and the prophecy is that you’ll spend your retirement in a cardboard box if you don’t spend your life grasping after it.
To whom or to what are you giving the power of the law and the prophets in your life?
And how does that affect the ways in which you try to live out Jesus’ commandments?
Not all laws and prophets in our society are negative. Think of the laws of free speech and freedom of association or the prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mother Theresa.
Jesus said that on our actions hang all the law and the prophets—and that statement will help us judge the value of the people and groups seeking to give law or prophesy.
When you hear someone declaring something as truth or predicting the future, ask yourself: what happens to this person’s statement if I act out of love?
Will this person feel threatened and diminished by the power of love? Then we’re probably in the territory of the Pharisees.
Will this person see love as a good and holy force to advance a common goal and change the world for the better, regardless of who takes leadership? Then we’re probably talking about a true prophet or a law-giver in harmony with God’s plans.
So let love be the test.
Jesus said we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Look for law-givers and prophets in your life and then seek to apply love to their ideas.
You will quickly discover that Jesus’ words ring true. We are to love God and love our neighbor, and on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.
The promises of God are eternal and unchanging. In the beginning was the Word, and with Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Whether or not we love God and our neighbor has no impact on the fundamental reality of God’s love undergirding and upholding the entire universe as well as knowing and loving us so individually and intimately as to number every hair on our heads.
But bringing the promises of God to life requires our participation.
For creation to reach its full potential, a torrent of life and goodness blossoming with glory to God, we have to do our part.
Our actions of love are the very life’s blood of the universe.
When we pray, when we serve others, when we give of our material means and our spiritual gifts, we are calling forth the innate goodness in God’s good creation.
The law, the prophets, creation itself: it all depends on love.
And since God is love, we know that love is stronger and truer and more real than any law or prophecy that we think governs our lives.
After the laws and prophecies are long gone, love will remain. God will remain, our Rock and our Redeemer.
If you liked, please share!