I’ve heard there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament, and the rabbis in Jesus’ day would often debate about which were the most important. When the opportunity to ask Jesus this question came along, they took it: “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” (“The law” refers to the first five books of the Old Testament.) Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36–40).
You might have noticed that the two most important commandments both begin with the same profound phrase: “Thou shalt love . . .” Most of us have very little problem with loving God. In fact, it’s possible to become so devoted to God that we can neglect our neighbors. We might wish to escape from the world, build a retreat in the mountains, and pray and read and meditate all day with no contact from the outside world. But Jesus has commanded us to love our neighbors, and we can’t love them if we’ve run away from them. Jesus prayed for His disciples, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17:15).