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 – NRSV)
Matthew’s account is dependent on Mark 12:28-31. Luke similarly draws on Mark for his account – see Luke 10:25-28.
Here is Mark’s account: “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. There is no other commandment greater than these’.”
Significantly, Matthew places the Pharisees explicitly opposite Jesus. This maintains Matthew’s theme of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees – see Matthew 22:15. However, scholars point out that the “scribes” as referred to by Mark, were experts in religious law so the terms are probably interchangeable.
Daniel Harrington writes: “The second scriptural debate concerns the ‘great commandment’ (22:34–40). Matthew has turned Mark’s friendly discussion between Jesus and an earnest scribe (Mark 12:28–34) into a confrontation with the Pharisees. The confrontational tone may have been suggested by the Q version (see Luke 10:25–28), but making the Pharisees into the opponents of Jesus here was Matthew’s distinctive move. The Pharisees would have been pleased by Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees about resurrection (22:23–33). But now they find themselves drawn into debate with Jesus. The core of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ query is taken over from Mark 12:30–31: the combination of the commandments to love God (Deut 6:5) and neighbor (Lev 19:18). To it Matthew adds two points: the neighbor-commandment is on the same level as the God-commandment (22:39a); by these two great commandments all the other teachings in the Torah are supported (22:40).” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 315.)
Teacher: The word didaskalos (“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? Given that the tenor of the whole interaction is polemical – “a question to test him” – it seems more than likely that the use of the word “teacher” is not quite as respectful as it might appear.
Which commandment is the first of all?: It is instructive to consider where Matthew places the teaching on the Great Commandment in his Gospel. 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). 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). 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). The Sadducees argue with Jesus about the resurrection – 22:23-33 (drawn from Mark 12:18–27; see also Lk 20:27–40). 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).
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)
all the law and the prophets: Jesus gives pre-eminence to the law of love over all other laws – this is the “greatest” commandment in the Torah. The whole Torah – and the prophets – serve this law of love and depend on it. By implication the Torah and the prophets must be approached and understood through this law of love. This in fact has a very practical outcome for the conscientious Jew: 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.” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 502.).
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.
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, op cit, 316.)
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.)
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: “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.”
Shema Yisrael – “Hear, [O] Israel” – are the first two words of a section of the Torah, and is the title (sometimes shortened to simply Shema) of a prayer that serves as a centrepiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. The first verse encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one”, found in Deuteronomy 6:4, sometimes 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. These sections of the Torah are read in the weekly Torah portions Va’etchanan, Eikev, and Shlach, respectively.
In the Septuagint, the Greek word for “you shall love” is agapeseis, from agapao. The same word is used in Leviticus 19:18. The same Greek word is also used in Matthew 22:37 and in 22:39. 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 from agapao.
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 – “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” A word of caution is in order here. First of all, the word “neighbour” 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. We find reiteration of Leviticus 19:8 in Galatians 5:14 and James 2:8.
Matthew makes an interesting change to the wording of the Shema. Whereas the original text of the Shema has “…. with all your might” – in the Septuagint the Greek word used is dynamis – Matthew has “…. with all your mind” – he uses the Greek word dianoia. Maybe we can connect this to the central message of Matthew’s Gospel, introduced by John the Baptist – “Repent! (metanoete) The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” The Greek word means “change your mind” and that implies a radical inward restructuring of the person. After Jesus had lived through his temptations in the wilderness he began to preach the same message – see 4:17. 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 is about a transformed being – a “new creation” and a “being born from above”.
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. 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 the opening statement of the traditional Jewish prayer, 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 “I AM” – 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”. This promise is a golden thread of the entire Bible.
The first disciples of Jesus saw themselves as part of a New Exodus. “The Lord” of the New Exodus is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the “I AM” enfleshed in our midst. He is the golden thread of all history. The true disciple 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). The fulfilment of the Great Commandment – and we live for that – is not a victory for will power but a gift of grace. All love comes from God. To love God, self and neighbour, is first and foremost a matter of getting out of the way and letting God be God. We can put it another way: As you have been loved into freedom, go into the world in such a way that God may love others into freedom through you. Become what you are – part of the golden thread of history.
The observation of a monk
“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.)
The grounding of Christian morality
“It is hardly news that there was a very profound clash between Jesus and the Pharisees and that Paul’ s conversion instigated a dialectic no less violent. But later Christian animosity has badly distorted the true nature of this confrontation. Pharisees are described as hypocrites or as uncaring legalists and inhuman externalises who imposed on others burdens they themselves would not bear. Most of which is inaccurate, unhistorical, and purely polemical. If Pharisees were such, how is one to explain their tremendous power over people for whom they had only the authority of competence? In fact, the Pharisees were superb moral guides. But there precisely lay the problem which Jesus and Paul saw so clearly.
“Apart from the damage such caricatures have done to Judaism and the relationship of Christianity to it, there is another very serious result within Christianity itself. When Christianity is no longer aware of what Jesus and Paul were fighting against in Pharisaic Judaism, it can hardly be conscious of a similar presence within itself. The debate did not concern good law as over against bad law or even internal and sincere law as over against external and hypocritical law. The challenge of Jesus and Paul was this: obedience does not lead to God, but God leads one to obedience. The question is not God or law, covenant or commandment, faith or works, but, granting both, in which direction does the arrow fly from one to the other? It must be emphasized that this is not a debate between Judaism and Christianity but a conflict within them both, and conflict ever ancient and ever new. So, according to Jesus and Paul, it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible, not a good life that made the reward of God’s presence inevitable. (Emphasis added.)
“Paul’s way, as everyone knows, was to proclaim human righteousness as God’s free gift and that one is justified by receiving it in faith. Jesus’ way was to announce the Kingdom’s advent as demanding decision and response, life and action, but never articulating such action in detail within the parables themselves. His own life, of course, is one such actualization. For example, his association with socio-religious outcasts is a clear actualization in life of the advent-reversal-action structure of the Kingdom’s presence. What Jesus proclaimed as Kingdom and Paul announced as righteousness agree, for, as Ernst Käsemann has said so succinctly: …. ‘The righteousness of God does not presuppose our obedience; it creates it’. The problem was not so much that one might not be able to obey the law’s excellence but that one might actually do so to perfection and thereby be unable to tell one’s own perfection from God. What exactly were Jesus and Paul fighting? In a final quotation from Käsemann: ‘the community of “good” people which turns God’s commandments into the instruments of self-sanctification’. The enemy was neither stupidity nor hypocrisy but sincerity all too sincere and perfection all too perfect.
“There is a very interesting philosophical analogy to this in the question posed by Jean Beaufret to Martin Heidegger in seeking to clarify the precise relationship between ontology and a possible ethics. His answer, contained in the Letter on Humanism, has been summed up by B. J. Boelen: “If by ontology is meant fundamental thinking, the thinking of man’s abode with Being … and by ethics man’s fundamental ēthos (dwelling place), man’s abode with Being – then fundamental thinking is eo ipso original ethics. In other words, fundamental ontology and original ethics are one and the same thing, and the question of their mutual relationship is therefore meaningless.” One recognizes the danger of this formulation as well as the compelling challenges of its truth. One wishes in a way to scurry back for safety into well-recognized morality and more or less socially accepted ethics. In the same text Heidegger says: ‘Because it thinks Being, thought thinks the Nothing’. It is presumed that we have learned or are fast learning that Nothing and nothing are not the same. Wallace Stevens spoke of the ‘Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is’. It is this “nothing that is,” this Nothing, this Nothingness, that Nietzsche warned about with such terrifying accuracy: “rather than want nothing, man even wants nothingness’. To dwell with Being and seek to find in that dwelling one’s morality as a gift is a very, very frightening challenge. One cannot dwell with Being without dwelling also in the vicinity of Nothingness. It may be the only way, but let us be clear that it is not a very comforting one. And it is not at all clear that Jesus intended to offer any greater comfort.
“The parables of Jesus seek to draw one into the Kingdom, and they challenge us to act and to live from the gift which is experienced therein. But we do not want parables. We want precepts and we want programs. We want good precepts and we want sensible programs. We are frightened by the lonely silences within the parables. Maybe if we entered into them it would be only to find, like Pompey in the Holy of Holies, that they are completely empty. We want them to tell us exactly what to do and they refuse to answer. They make us face the problem of the grounding of ethics and we want only to discuss the logic of ethics. There are very many ways in which an aphorism starting with ‘if any one strikes you on the right cheek’ might have been finished: kill him, strike him, ignore him, forgive him, even love him. But when it is ended with ‘turn to him the other also’ in Matt. 5:39, one is no longer giving helpful moral admonition or even radical pacifistic advice. One is deliberately overthrowing ethics in the sense in which Heidegger spoke of the necessity of overthrowing metaphysics. This aphorism brings ethics also under the radical challenge of the Kingdom. It intends us to experience how the logic of ethics is undermined by the mystery of God and that, if one can but accept it, is the most crucial moral experience of all. (Emphasis added.)
“The Kingdom’s advent is that which undermines worlds so that we can experience God as distinct from world, and the action and life which the Kingdom demands is built upon this insecurity. Our ethical principles and our moral systems are absolutely necessary and so also is their inevitable shattering as part and parcel of the shattering of world. (Emphasis added.) We walk a knife-edge between absolutism on the one hand and indifferentism on the other. All of which is rather frightening and makes one wish for just one little absolute, even one pale, frail, anaemic one to hang onto for security. But the only absolute we keep glimpsing is the Kingdom snapping our absolutes like dried twigs. So if we wish to conclude that Jesus and Paul were right against the Pharisees let us be clear about what the victory entails. Can we generate our ethics from an encounter with God knowing that any such generation is part of world and subject to ultimate judgement by the Kingdom? Can we walk and act in utter serenity and in utter insecurity, in total concern and in total incertitude?” (Dominic Crossan, In Parables – The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Polebridge Press, 1992, 78-81.)
 Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”