Our Work Fulfills the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)
Seeing that Jesus is skilled at interpreting scripture, a scribe asks him a question that was already under contention among Jewish leaders. “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers with two linked commandments that would be well known to his listeners. The first is a declaration to the Jewish people from Deuteronomy 6:5 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Then in the same breath Jesus adds, “The second is this,” and he quotes Leviticus 19:18 ”You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (See the TOW Bible Commentary on Leviticus 19:17-18.) If you love God, you will love your neighbor. For more on the link between these two commandments see “The Great Commandment is a Great Framework” (Matthew 22:34-40) and “The Good Samaritan at Work--Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself” (Luke 10:25-37).
Jesus’ wise answer gives us some insight into God’s priorities. If there are just two tasks God wants us to concentrate on more than any other they are loving God and loving those around us. It is worth mentioning that by saying, “as yourself,” Jesus also expects us to love ourselves.
Thankfully, work can be one of the primary ways we respond to the Great Commandment. Yet many people fail to recognize that our work can be a way of loving others. Many jobs give Christians an opportunity to fulfill the basic needs of another person. Take health care, for example. A doctor who writes a prescription, a pharmacist who fills that prescription, and the person who stocks the shelves at CVS all play a role in delivering necessary health services to their neighbors. Further up and down the supply chain we see the invaluable work of scientists who test the effectiveness of medical interventions, construction workers who maintain the roads along which medication travels, and case workers who process health insurance claims, all participating in loving their neighbors by meeting their basic human needs.
But human needs do not only extend to healthcare. People also need food, shelter, laughter, and connection to meaning greater than themselves. So farmers and restaurant workers, home builders and home insurers, comedians and children, and philosophers and pastors all have a way to love others through their daily work, simply by doing their work well. Every time you cross a street, you depend on the love shown you by the mechanics who did the most recent brake jobs on every car hurtling toward the intersection.
Through work we meet our financial needs and those of our family. Since God commands each person to love ourselves, this is another way that work fulfills the Great Commandment.
Lastly, we might ask how we can love God through our work. One way is to love God consciously while doing our work, in a fashion made famous by sages such as Brother Lawrence. But if continuous mindfulness is not our particular gift, we can love God by doing something that God wants done. The broader story of the redemption that Jesus offers gives us a picture of what God wants done in the marketplace. Many industries or workplaces have problems that call for redemption. A Christian worker can do something God wants done by modeling forgiveness, compassion, and integrity.
However we work, it is important to remember the order of the two parts of the Great Commandment. Loving God comes first, loving neighbor second. As Dorothy Sayers notes, “The second commandment depends upon the first, and without the first, it is a delusion and a snare…. If we put our neighbor first, we are putting man above God, and that is what we have been doing ever since we began to worship humanity and make man the measure of all things….There is, in fact, a paradox about working to serve the community, and it is this: that to aim directly at serving the community is to falsify the work; the only way to serve the community is to forget the community and serve the work.”
Practically speaking, this means that we love our neighbor by doing true work, that is, work as God would have us do it. This may or may not be how our neighbor—customer, client, co-worker, supplier, etc, —would have us do it. For example our co-workers might want us to serve them by doing their work for them, but God would probably have us serve them by helping them do it themselves. Or a customer might want us to provide the product with the lowest price, whereas God might want us to educate the customer why a higher-priced item is better for the customer, the environment or the community. The first half of the Great Commandment plants our feet in the solid ground of God’s purposes. We are to work for others as servants of God, not as people-pleasers.
Upon hearing Jesus’ answer to his question, the scribe concurs that Jesus is right in his priorities. Loving God and loving people are indeed more important than specific commandments required by the Jewish law. Jesus responds that his questioner is “not far from the kingdom of God.” Similarly, when we hold our own actions up to the standard of the Great Commandment, when we love God completely and care for others with the same care we show ourselves, we bring the kingdom of God to our places of work.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 142.