C’mon, this is an easy question. Because Jesus was asked the same question so we can pretty easily rely on his answer. It’s the Shema: to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And to love your neighbor as yourself. Asked and Answered!
But no, Jesus was wrong.
At least, if you value grammar over the opinion of God-With-Us.
In my Sunday School class, I’ve been teaching a video series featuring Dr. Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament professor and author. In February 2012, Brueggemann gave the three-day Barton Clinton-Gordey Lecture Series at Boston Avenue UMC on the topic of “Scarcity and Abundance in the Bible.”
In the third lecture of the series, Brueggemann points to the following as the most important command in the Old Testament:
In Deuteronomy 15, you get a law about seven years. It’s called the Year of Release. It says that at the end of seven years, if a poor person owes you money, cancel the debt.
Uh, what? That’s the most important? A law about releasing debts? What about the Shema? The 10 Commandments? Whatever. If you break this seven-year-release law, the United Methodist Church won’t even put you on trial.
So c’mon, how on earth is this the most important commandment? Brueggemann continues:
I’ll give you a little Hebrew grammar–I know you’ve been waiting for this. Biblical Hebrew has no adverbs. The way it expresses the intensity of the verb, it repeats the verb. So if it says give and you want to say “really give” it says “give give” right in the sentence–“give give.” This law about the Year of Release there are five absolute infinitives that you can’t spot in English. There are more intense verbs in this law than anywhere else in the Old Testament. This is Moses saying I mean this.
[The law] says to not be hard-hearted (or tight fisted) about granting poor people space to live their lives, because you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord God brought you out into the good place.
So grammatically, the Old Testament scripture with the most emphasis as in “you must must must must must do this” is a passage about forgiving debts.
Is it the greatest command? Clearly not, I completely agree with Jesus on this point.
But the command in the Bible that warrants the most emphasis, the most literary focus, the crescendo that storytellers and givers of oral tradition gave the biggest exhortation to…is a little passage about releasing debts in the seventh year.
To Brueggemann, this emphasis means that for a society composed of God’s people that there should not be a permanent underclass but the economy should be organized so that everyone has a viable chance. So that every seven years, there’s a chance for the people to get a leg up and have past errors forgiven. It’s the original social safety net, and it’s more painful to the rich than any progressive tax code in American history.
To me, it means that we follow a God who knows our sins, who knows our hard-heartedness, who knows our short memory, who knows that we bully those most like us, who knows that the mighty will always try to hide injustice behind fairness. And we are always called to live a life that follows God’s pattern: to strive for six days a week, and relax on the seventh. To build up for six years, and release it to be whatever it ought to be on the seventh. And to trust that our plans, our schemes, and our dreams should always be planned with space for God to work among us in that chaotic, uncontrollable seventh day, year, or moment…because that’s how a life centered on God just is.
To you? Thoughts?