When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 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 greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)
1. Matthew is here dependent on Mark 12:28–34.
a. Though, in Mark, it is a scribe, not a lawyer, who asks the question. However, scholars point out that scribes were experts in religious law so the terms are probably interchangeable.
b. The scribe’s approach is friendly according to Mark. In Matthew the situation is polemical, though, as in previous confrontations, the opening address is polite – in this instance the word didaskalos (διδάσκαλος) (“teacher” or “master”) is used. (See also 19:16 and 22:24 & 16). Does this suggest some kind of begrudging respect on the part of Jesus’ adversaries? Is the politeness a cynical strategy?
c. A similar text is also found in Luke 10:25–28, where the questioner is also a lawyer. The intent in Luke, as in Matthew, is “to test” Jesus.
d. Luke adds his famous parable of the Good Samaritan.
2. The religious authorities are not of one mind in their opposition to Jesus:
a. The “chief priests and elders” challenge his authority (21:23); the “chief priests and the Pharisees” are angered by his parable of the wicked tenant (21:45); the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, took this up with Jesus (22:23);
b. The Pharisees are the principal antagonists in our Gospel today;
c. It seems like they were lining up to take Jesus on!
3. It is instructive to consider where Matthew places this teaching on the Great Commandment in his Gospel:
a. As indicated above, “the chief priests and elders” have challenged Jesus’ authority – 21:23-27 (drawn from Mark 11:27–33; see also Luke 20:1–8).
b. This is followed with Jesus telling the three parables which are clearly condemnatory of the religious authorities – the parable of the two sons 21:28-32 (unique to Matthew), the parable of the wicked tenants 21:33-45 (drawn from Mark 12:1–12; see also Lk 20:9–19) and the parable of the wedding banquet – 22:1-14 (see also Luke 14:15–24)
c. The Pharisees and Herodians confront Jesus over the payment of taxes – 22:15-22 (drawn from Mark 12:13–17; see also Lk 20:20–26)
d. The Sadducees argue with Jesus about the resurrection – 22:23-33 (drawn from Mark 12:18–27; see also Lk 20:27–40)
e. Then, in this polemical context, Jesus gives the teaching of the Great Commandment – 22:34-40 (drawn from Mark 12:28–34; see also Luke 10:25–28)
f. Chapter 22 then concludes with the ultimate teaching – embedded in a question – on Jesus’ identity and authority: “Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’ They said to him, ‘The son of David’. He said to them, ‘How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet'”? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?’ No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (22:41-46)
4. Jesus gives pre-eminence to the law of love over all other laws – this is the “greatest” commandment in the Torah:
a. The whole Torah – and the prophets – serve this law of love and depend on it.
b. By implication the Torah and the prophets must be approached and understood through this law of love;
c. This in fact has a very practical outcome for the conscientious Jew:
i. One scholar writes: “…. the command to do no murder is more important than that which prohibits boiling a kid in its mother’s milk (Deut. 14:21). That opened up the way for speculation as to which of all the 613 commandments that the rabbis found in the law was to be regarded as the greatest of them all. This is another question that must have looked to the questioner as though it should give matter for argument and controversy no matter what answer Jesus gave. There is no objective yardstick for measuring one commandment against another, so that whatever commandment Jesus selected for the first place would certainly
have been placed lower by others. The lawyer was initiating a discussion that might lead anywhere and that in his view would certainly provide a strong possibility of damaging Jesus’ reputation.” (L Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 502.).
ii. By saying that the law of love is the greatest, Jesus not only avoided a pointless argument, he showed the Torah to be much more real for daily living, without reducing or losing any of its intent.
iii. Another scholar sums up the particular importance of this for the Jews who had become Christians: “It was something to which Jewish Christians could point as expressing their position. The fact that Matthew went out of his way to place Jesus’ summary in the context of a hostile debate with the Pharisees indicates that it was used in exactly that way.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 1991/2007, 316.)
iv. Harrington goes on to point out that this text in Matthew cannot be used to make any simplistic claims: “The so-called ‘love-commandment’ is often used to distinguish Jews and Christians: Jews have the Law, and Christians have love. Would Matthew have agreed? I doubt it. Matthew saw the love-commandment as giving meaning and direction to the whole Torah. Other early Christian theologians and the tradition of the Church have gone beyond Matthew on this point. Nevertheless, his voice within the canon of Scripture should be respected and not made to say something foreign to his theological outlook. He understood the commandment(s) to love God and neighbour as providing a coherent perspective for observing the Torah.” (ibid.)
5. Jesus’ clear reference to the Shema affirms the primacy of the law of love. The opening verses of the Shema are found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
a. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
b. Shema Yisrael is the title (sometimes shortened to simply Shema) of a prayer that served as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services and continues to serve that purpose to this day.The first verse affirms the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), sometime alternately translated as “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Observant Jews consider the Shema to be the most important part of the prayer service in Judaism, and its twice-daily recitation as a mitzvah (religious commandment). It is traditional for Jews to say the Shema as their last words, and for parents to teach their children to say it before they go to sleep at night. The term “Shema” is used by extension to refer to the whole part of the daily prayers that commences with Shema Yisrael and comprises Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37–41.
6. In the Septuagint, the Greek word for “you shall love” is agapeseis (ἀγαπήσεις), from agapao (ἀγαπάω). The same word is used in Leviticus 19:18.
a. The same Greek word is also used in Matthew 22:37 and in 22:39.
b. Later, for the Christian community, agape became identified with God’s love – the highest form of love … in Latin caritas. Thus in John 3:16 we find the word egapesen (ἠγάπησεν): “God so loved the world ….”.
7. Jesus adds the commandment from Leviticus 19:18, placing the command to love neighbour and self on the same level as the command to love God. We find reiteration of Leviticus 19:8 in Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8.
a. A word of caution is in order here. First of all, the word “neighbor” in the Hebrew Scriptures refers to other Israelites. Secondly, there is no reason to assume that this text has in mind the modern psychological insight that a healthy love of self – “self esteem” – is the basis for love of neighbour.
8. Matthew makes an interesting change to the wording of the Shema:
a. Whereas the original text of the Shema has “…. with all your might” – in the Septuagint the Greek word used is dynamis (δύναμις) – Matthew has “…. with all your mind” – he uses the Greek word dianoia (διάνοια).
i. Maybe we can connect this to the central message of Matthew’s Gospel, introduced by John the Baptist – “Repent! (metanoete – μετανοεῖτε) The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” After Jesus had lived through his temptations in the wilderness he began to preach the same message – see 4:17. The Greek word means “change your mind” and that implies a radical inward restructuring of the person.
ii. In other words, Matthew may be here drawing a straight line between metanoia – conversion of heart – and the Great Commandment as both cause and effect. This is brought home very powerfully in John 15:12: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” See also John 13:34. This about a transformed being – a “new creation” and a “being born from above”. This cannot be adequately summed up by the so-called Golden Rule, “Do unto others etc.”
About forty years ago a priest told me a story. He was at an ecumenical function, sitting alongside a rabbi. The rabbi asked him: “What would you say was the central teaching of Christianity?” He replied: “Love”. The rabbi said to him: “Father, we have had two thousand years of ‘love’ don’t you think that is enough?”
Whatever you might think of the rabbi’s etiquette, you would have to agree that the history of Christianity is a very mixed one, too often not bearing witness to the Great Commandment, at times violating it terribly. We do not have to detail the Crusades or the Inquisition, for example, to demonstrate that there is more than a grain of truth in what the rabbi said.
So how can we get it so wrong?
In the first place, it does seem reasonable to say that Jesus’ message was first and foremost about love: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
I would like to suggest one detail that, if forgotten or overlooked, changes everything for the worse. That detail is in the opening statement of the Shema from which Jesus quotes: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). This statement sets the context for everything that follows in the Shema and in Judaism. “The Lord” is revealed in the theophany on Sinai – “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) – and in the Exodus Event. The people derive their identity and their destiny from “The Lord”. There is an unbreakable Covenant between “The Lord” and the people – see Exodus 3:15, for example, and the oft-repeated promise, “I shall be with you”.
The first disciples of Jesus saw themselves as part of a New Exodus, fulfilling the first Exodus. “The Lord” of the New Exodus is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The Christiandisciple finds her/his identity and destiny in and through Jesus.
The command to love – for both Jews and Christians – is, in effect, a command to be who and what you are. God is the source of all love. We are but the instruments of that love. When we find ourselves in that role, our reaction should be one of gratitude rather than satisfaction. It is a wonderful privilege to have a front row seat when God is at work.
Matthew has Jesus put it succinctly in the Sermon of the Mount. “Let your light shine!” (Matthew 5:16).
So the issue is the grounding of morality. Is Christian morality grounded in human will inspired by the teachings of Jesus? Is it therefore a human approximation of what God wants of us? Or is Christian morality grounded in Jesus in whom we live and move and have our being (see Acts 17:28)? Is it therefore a manifestation of God’s life in us and through us?
Is our role as moral agents then, to rationally determine what God wants – ie what is the good and true action – and put that into practice or is it rather to do whatever we can to enable God to be present in the world through us?
I suggest the following as a rule of thumb for living out the moral vision of the Gospels: As you have been loved into freedom, be in the world in such a way that God can love others into freedom through you.
“Hope not because you think you can be good, but because God loves us irrespective of our merits and whatever is good in us comes from His love, not from our own doing. …. But indeed we exist solely for this, to be the place He has chosen for His presence, His manifestation in the world, His epiphany. But we make all this dark and inglorious because we fail to believe it, we refuse to believe it. It is not that we hate God, rather that we hate ourselves, despair of ourselves. If we once began to recognize, humbly but truly, the real value of our own self, we would see that this value was the sign of God in our being, the signature of God upon our being. Fortunately, the love of our fellow man is given us as the way of realizing this. For the love of our brother, our sister, our beloved, our wife, our child, is there to see with the clarity of God Himself that we are good. It is the love of my lover, my brother or my child that sees God in me, makes God credible to myself in me. And it is my love for my lover, my child, my brother, that enables me to show God to him or her in himself or herself. Love is the epiphany of God in our poverty. The contemplative life is then the search for peace not in an abstract exclusion of all outside reality, not in a barren negative closing of the senses upon the
world, but in the openness of love.” (Thomas Merton, “A Letter on the Contemplative Life”, reproduced in Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master – The Essential Writings, edited by Lawrence S Cunningham, Paulist Press, 1992, 425.)