For Viktor Frankl, that moment came at Auswitz. When the Nazis came for him he hid the manuscript of his life’s work—an unpublished book—in the lining of his coat. The Nazis discovered his hidden treasure. He pleaded with them, telling them this was his life’s work—it was so important. They laughed in his face and destroyed it. He writes:
“I had to surrender my clothes and in turn inherited the worn out rags of an inmate who had been sent to the gas chamber. Instead of the many pages of my manuscript, I found in the pocket of the newly acquired coat a single page torn out of a Hebrew prayer book, which contained the main Jewish prayer, Shema Yisrael (Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one God. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.) How should I have interpreted such a ‘coincidence’ other than as a challenge to live my thoughts instead of merely putting them on paper?”In a very real sense, his house had burned down. His life had fallen apart. Now he was confronted with a choice regarding his priorities.
This is the sort of question put to Jesus in Mark 12:28-34. Interestingly enough he responds to the question with the same passage Frankl discovered in his coat pocket.
One of the scribes came up and overheard the discussion. Recognizing Jesus answered them well, he asked Him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”When push comes to shove, what is most important? When you look at the 618 commands of the Law, which command really matters? What really counts when the house burns down? What really counts when your life falls apart and your life’s work is in ashes?
“This is the most important,” Jesus answered: Hear O, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
When I was growing up, the churches I attended seemed quite reluctant to prioritize God’s commands. Why, they’re all important! And we’d quote James 2—“if you obey the whole law but disobey in one point you are guilty of all!” But that really wasn’t James’ point. In fact, if you read the context, you’d see he was saying the same thing Jesus was saying: namely there is one law that is most significant and more important than all of the others. Jesus had no problem in saying the other laws took back seat to these two commands. In fact, these two commands subsumed all others!
Jesus says it all begins with worship—with love for God. And that makes sense. If we are created in his image then it would seem that we would find true fulfillment the more we discover how to love on and worship him. And he expects us to devote the entirety of our being to this task. I love how Eugene Peterson words it in The Message: Love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy. Does this challenge you? This isn’t just a reference to what you do on Sunday morning. Does God form the center of your life, of your day? Are we even as devoted as the Jews of Jesus’ day were? They would wake up every morning with the Shema on their lips, they would pray it as they went through their day, in the evening they would close their eyes chanting the Shema. Can we say we are as wrapped up in God as they were?
What would the world be like if on the same day all of God’s followers truly lived out love for God heart, soul, mind and strength? We could say the kingdom, God’s will, would have been done on earth as it is in heaven.
But Jesus doesn’t stop here. According to biblical scholar Scot McKnight, Jesus shockingly adds to the central creed of Judaism! He says: love your neighbor as yourself. This was an acceptable Jewish command—but it wasn’t originally part of the Shema. Jesus adds it and says: This is priority. Boil it all down and it comes to this: love God with everything and love your neighbor as yourself. This represents the core of Jesus’ teaching—his “yoke” as the Rabbis would call it. It is repeated twice by Paul in Romans and Galatians and once by James—and alluded to by John in 1 John.
The teacher of the law, who asked the question, responds to Jesus.
“Well said, Teacher! You are correct when you say He is One, and there is no one else except Him. And to love Him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is far more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.”He agrees! In a telling moment he says something the prophets had said in the past—but perhaps few have grasped, even today: these two commands are far more important than all the ritual, all the burnt offerings and sacrifices one could offer. Jesus says: You are not far from the kingdom of God. Do you grasp what he is saying here? This is dangerous stuff! This challenges the centrality of ritual—the centrality of the Temple, itself! It sounds something very much like what he told the Samaritan woman in John 4—it’s not a matter of where you worship—it’s a matter of who!
When Jesus saw that he answered with deep understanding, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
So how do we live out the essence of Jesus’ teaching—his yoke? We could probably spend hours trying to flesh this out on a pragmatic basis. But let me just make a couple of suggestions.
First of all, we need to get rid of this idea that this is some impossible ideal so we shouldn’t even attempt it. Jesus expects us to live this way. Will we perfectly accomplish it? Of course not, but he has given us incredible help: the presence of his Spirit in our lives. This is not to be ignored, written off, or relegated to a few holy people. This is what Jesus expects of all of his followers. He really believes we can do this.
Secondly, as Scot McKnight suggests, we need at least keep this on our hearts and minds daily. Moses told Israel the Shema was so important they should talk about it when they get up, when they walk around during the day, when they go to sleep—to even carry physical reminders. Have you ever thought about including this in your daily prayers? When you rise you greet the day with: Lord empower me to love you with all my heart, soul, mind and strength—and help me love my neighbor as myself. Let this become a breath prayer that fills your day.
Next begin to take advantage of the opportunities you have to demonstrate your love for God and others. Look for ways. If you aren’t spending time in prayer and worship daily—start doing it! Turn the television off! Get up a little earlier, go to bed later, take less time eating at lunch—whatever it takes! Show God that he takes precedence. Don’t skip corporate assemblies, either! Here you join with others to praise and honor God. How often did the psalmist say: In the assembly I’ll praise your name? Or, Before the assembly I’ll declare your praises! Join a home group and learn to love on a small group of people. It’s easy to say: I love people. But it’s harder when you put particular faces on "people". Then you can branch out and start looking for people to serve and love in very pragmatic ways. And when I say “I love my neighbor” that means I want and I work for the very best for that person. I find it interesting that in some Central and South American countries the word for neighbor is próximo which basically means “the person next to you.” So guess what? For me, when I’m drinking coffee in Denny’s, my neighbor is Sammy—a mechanic, who grew up in New Jersey and lost a son in the World Trade Center. When I’m in church, it’s the person sitting right beside me. When I’m driving my car, it’s the people on the road with me. When I’m in the office, my neighbors are Jeremy and Betty Jo. I think you get the idea.
What is important? What takes priority? Viktor Frankl was faced with that dilemma in a concentration camp called Auswitz. During his nightmare stay in the camp he made another discovery. He writes: “I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love.” I think Jesus would agree. God’s love for us that in turn calls us to love him and his creation.
The house has burned down, what have you grabbed? Your life has fallen apart, on what do you hang your life on? When push comes to shove—what’s most important? Love. Love God with everything you are. Love those beside you as you love yourself.
So may you grasp the love God has for you. And may that love empower you to love him with your entire being. And may you love those around you who are made in God's image.