“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:40). All of God’s commandments are not equal. Most commandments hang on others. That is, all commandments are understood in the light of two others or exist as expressions of the two others. The Old Testament sacrificial laws, for example, existed to instruct those before Christ how their love for God (the first, great commandment) was to be expressed. The commandments not to murder or steal or commit adultery existed to instruct God’s people how to love their neighbors as themselves (the second, great commandment).
Experience teaches us that love must be expressed in concrete actions. Love of God and love of neighbour have no meaning if they are merely good feelings. Children who hear the words “I love you,” but see their parents ignore them know that that love has little meaning. A wife who hears the words “I love you,” but sees her husband sexually enamored by other women knows that that love has little meaning. Christian brothers who hear the words “I love you,” but see no one visit them in hospital when they are sick in body or in prison when they are sick in soul, know that that love has little meaning. And when God hears us say to Him, “I love you,” but sees us busily accumulating wealth, multiplying our bodily comforts, and filling what little discretionary time we have with empty entertainments so that we are too tired or too busy to pray, then God too knows that that love has little meaning.
Yet we do want to love God. We do want to love our brothers and sisters, our spouses and children. We do want to love, but we are lost in flood of worldly cares, in a jungle of tangled thoughts, impulses and conflicting cares.
And this is why we have commandments, commandments to help us stay on track and express our love concretely, to nurture love, and to form us in the two great commandments. And commandments are multiplied as experience teaches us habits, rituals and guidelines that help us love concretely. Some examples of multiplied commandments are the date-night commandment: to help keep husband and wife focused in their devotion to one another. The kid’s-hockey-game-is-almost-always-more-important-than-work commandment: to help us attend to our children.
Then there are the commandments that the Church has given us, commandments that help us love God and neighbor. These commandments include commandments about worship and prayer, commandments about fasting and alms giving, commandments about morality and appropriate relationships. All of these commandments exist to help us love God and neighbor.
Sometimes, however, we make the mistake of thinking commandments are an end in themselves. We think that the goal is to keep the commandments, the lesser ones, and lose sight of the greater ones on which the lesser hang. We become excellent parents, losing interest in our children; we become model spouses, lacking genuine intimacy; we become faithful Orthodox Christians--never eating the wrong food on the wrong day, never tithing less than ten percent of our income, never compromising our rule of prayer--we do it all and our hearts are cold, our minds proud, and God is far away.
As we approach Great Lent, a time of stricter attention to the lesser commandments of the Church, let us not lose sight of the goal: the greater commandments of love of God and neighbor.