But when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they came together.  And one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, to test Him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the great and first commandment.  And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:34-40

On Holy Monday evening, the Gospel reading is one of the harshest passages to hear.  It is Jesus castigating the leadership of the Jewish Temple.  There are several “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” verses.  The Old Testament Law had 613 commandments.  Most of us are familiar with the Ten Commandments.  Well, these are ten out of 613, so there are 603 other commandments we are less familiar with.  The number of commandments was daunting.  People had a hard time keeping them.  Heck, people had a hard time memorizing them.  The temple leadership knew them, and because most people couldn’t read back then, the temple elite were basically telling people the Law, and people had no other choice but to believe them.  And this left a lot of room for abuses in the Law, because who was going to resist and argue when they couldn’t read.  The reason why God gave the Law to Moses was to provide order and structure, not abuse. 

 Jesus summarized the entire 613 commandments of the Law into TWO—love God and love your neighbor.  All of our sins fit into one of these two categories—either a failure to love God, or a failure to love neighbor or both. 

 The Bible is very intimidating.  So is Orthodox theology.  There are so many sacred writings of church fathers like St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil, there are writings of Apostolic Fathers, and there are writings of saints and theologians to this day who expound on every verse of Scripture and every facet of theology.  And all of it ends up at these two commandments—to love God and to love our neighbor.  On these rest everything we believe and everything we do as Christians.  Take worship—worship is an expression of both love for God and our neighbor.  In worship we present ourselves before God and we praise Him, we bless Him, we thank Him, we bow before Him, we express faith in Him.  And in offering prayers and petitions, we are also showing love for our neighbors, as we pray for peace in the world, for those who are sick and suffering, those who are traveling, etc. 

 Let’s look at our income.  God has given each of us a talent, a means by which we can provide for ourselves but also a means by which we can serve others.  Many people don’t think of loving God or loving their neighbor when they are working—it becomes all about getting for ourselves.  Imagine how different the world would be if everyone strove to glorify God in their work, and to serve their neighbor at their job. 

 I am blessed to celebrate services in a beautiful church building.  We have exquisite appointments in the altar.  I have always been enamored with liturgical vestments and I have many more sets than I need.  We may worship in a beautiful building, and I wear beautiful vestments when I worship, but I do not worship either the building or the vestments.  I use these as tools to express my love for God.  We build churches to worship in so that we can see the goal in the icons, and that goal is to become Saints, to be set apart for God, and we set ourselves apart for Him by how we love.  In John 13:35, Jesus says “By THIS all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  People do not recognize our Christianity because of our ornate churches or beautiful vestments.  People come to Christ when they see love.  It all boils down to that.

 In the Gospel that is read on Holy Monday morning, at the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy, Jesus says in Matthew 24:12, that one of the signs of the end times will be “because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold.”  There are people who fear for the end of the world because of climate change, economic hardship and military threats from powerful countries.  The greatest threat to our humanity is lack of love—we lack love for our neighbors and most especially, we (the world collectively) lacks love for God. 

 The sign of the cross reminds us of these two great commandments.  The vertical bar of the cross reminds us that we are to have a personal relationship with Christ.  The horizontal bar reminds us that we are to love our neighbors.  Each time we make the sign of the cross, it is as if we are saying “love God, love neighbor.”  Imagine if you said that every time you made the sign of the cross—what a powerful reminder that the most important thing we do is express love for both. 

 Everyone works so hard to master things—whether it be math, or writing, or singing, or any number of other things.  The most important thing we need to master is love and all the things that love entails—patience, kindness, optimism, etc.  Some of the hymns of Holy Monday night reference the Parable of the Talents, where we remember how Christ entrusts each of us with a talent (some with five, some with two, and some with one, everyone with at least one) and we are supposed to use these talents, whatever they may be, to express our love for Him through service to others.  The hymn encourages us to use our talents, not just for personal gain, but for the glory of God, in service to one another, and in doing so, “we will be worthy of the Master’s joy.”  Because there is certainly diversity when it comes to who has what talents, but regardless of what talents we’ve been blessed with, the purpose of those talents is singular and identical for each of us—to use our talents to express love for God and for one another.  We don’t need to “master it all,” we must master love for God and for our neighbor. 

 Come, you faithful, let us eagerly work for the Maste, for He distributes His wealth to His servants; accordingly then, let us increase the talent of grace.  Let one, be graced with wisdom through good works; let another, celebrate a service of splendor; let another, faithful to the word communicate this to the uninstructed; and yet another, distribute wealth to the poor; for thus, we shall increase what is entrusted to us, and as faithful stewards of His Grace, we may be worthy of the Master’s joy. Of this, deem us worthy, O loving Christ, our God. (Aposticha, Holy Monday Evening, Service of the Bridegroom, Fr. George Papadeas, Holy Week and Easter, p. 68)

 Love God, love your neighbor.  Everything about our life should center around that.  Our judgment before God before we are allowed to enter into everlasting life will be based on that.  It all comes down to these two commandments! We don’t need to master 613 commandments, just two.  And all of the Orthodox theology can be summed up in one word: Love!


Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced multiple books, you can view here: https://amzn.to/3nVPY5M


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