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. Whereas Mark has a scribe ask the question, Matthew has one of the Pharisees – a lawyer – as the question. Luke also has a lawyer ask the question. Luke then leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan.
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 – “the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together”. This maintains Matthew’s theme of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees – see Matthew 22:15 where we are told “the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him”.
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 a title of respect. 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, 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. 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”.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the heart and soul of his life and teaching. It is in fact the heart and soul of Judaism too. In response to a question from the Pharisees that is intended to trap him – “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” – Jesus recalls the prayer which they would have all recited several times each day – the Shema. His words may be found in Deuteronomy 6:5. The words from Leviticus 19:18 are added: “love your neighbor as yourself”.
It is worth citing the extended text from Deuteronomy to better understand Jesus’ response: “Hear, 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”.
No doubt the Pharisees would have liked a legal answer – “do this, don’t do that”. Instead, Jesus invites them to pay attention to the meaning of the Shema. It is a prayer of identity. It reiterates their origins in the utterly unmerited initiative of the Lord. They are who they are because of God’s love. They must never forget that. The primary focus here is not what the people of Israel must do so much as it is what God has done and will do for them according to the Covenant of Love. The title of the prayer – Shema – is crucial. It means “hear” or “listen”. The Prophet Hosea recalls this: “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them” (11:4).
In a memorable statement near the beginning of Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XIV reminds us: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (#1). If our primary response to the so-called Great Commandment is a legal one or an ethical choice, we will miss the profundity and richness of Jesus’ words. We may instead end up like the character C S Lewis describes: The person who goes about loving others and you can tell the others by their hunted look.
All love comes from God. The challenge of the Great Commandment is not to be the source but the sacrament of love. We could sum it up this way: As you have been loved into freedom. Be in the world in such a way that God may love others into freedom through you.
A video presentation of the Reflection may be found on YouTube via https://stpatschurchhill.org/