The Greatest Commandments
“All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”
- Matthew 22:40
When it comes to questions, some are easier to answer than others.
“What’s your favorite color?” is a subjective question. There is no right or wrong answer. The response is up to you.
“What’s the principal square root of 64?” is a more specific, objective question and has a correct answer (8 is the correct answer) and lots of incorrect answers. One can get this one correct or incorrect.
Then, there are trick questions. “What never asks a question but gets answered all the time?” Answer: your cell phone.
The trick question is similar in nature to the question intended to entrap a person to discredit or embarrass them. This is the type of question we encounter in Matthew’s gospel account of the expert in the law questioning Jesus about the greatest commandments given by God to mankind.
We read that a Pharisee, who was an expert in the law, “tested” Jesus with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
It seems like a straight-forward question until we consider the expansiveness of the Old Testament Law.
As Christians, we tend to think mainly of the Ten Commandments when we hear a question like the one asked of Jesus by the expert in the law. Choosing the “greatest commandment” from a list of ten commandments doesn’t sound too overwhelming.
However, in order to gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the test set before Jesus, we need to return to the Old Testament and consider the historical framework regarding the giving and receiving of God’s Law.
From the perspective of traditional Reformed theology, God’s law as revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures is grouped together in three (3) categories: Moral Law, Ceremonial Law and Civil (Judicial) Law.
Moral Law – Focused in the Ten (10) Commandments, the Moral Law is of permanent application and refers to the treating of morals or of perpetual duties toward God and our neighbor.
Ceremonial Law – concerned the ceremonies or rites about the sacred things to be observed under the Old Testament. The Ceremonial Law was a shadow of Christ which became obsolete with his coming into the world.
Civil Law – constituted the civil government of the Israelite people. Provided a model of legal arrangements for any society, though not of such a status to demand exact replication.
So, of the three categories of divine Law, only the Moral law carried forward into the New Testament.
Known as the Mosaic Law, God provided Moses with 613 commandments, stipulations and regulations to be followed by the Israelites. Of these 613 laws, 248 were positive commandments (the ‘do’s) and 365 were negative commandments (the ‘don’t’s).
When tested by the expert in the law, Jesus had 612 chances to provide the “wrong” answer and justify the Pharisees in their attempt to embarrassment and discredit him.
But there was more…
In addition to these specific divine laws, the oral tradition of the Pharisees known as the Mishnah, which developed during the Second Temple period between 516 B.C. and 70 A.D., provided a commentary on the Mosaic Law.
The intent of the Mishnah was to “build a fence” around the Mosaic Law so people wouldn’t come close to breaking God’s commandments. It did so by introducing additive, man-made rules that swelled the list of rules and regulations to be kept into the thousands.
As an example, let’s consider the 4th of the 10 Commandments:
“Observe the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 5:12-14).
Jewish scholars created 39 separate categories of what “work” means in addition to sub-categories as it relates to the divine injunction to “do no work.” The result was thousands of sub-categories covering topics such as: i) how many steps one can take on the Sabbath; and ii) how many letters one can write on the Sabbath.
This commandment in particular was often used by the Pharisees to challenge Jesus’ identity as the Son of God and to bring into question Jesus’ legitimacy as a teacher.
When met with these verbal traps phrased as legitimate questions, Jesus reminded the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees that, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).
On one particular occasion, Jesus was dining at the home of a prominent Pharisee and was being watched closely by his host and the host’s fellow Pharisees. Also in attendance was a man with dropsy, an inflammatory disease that indicates a host of other physical ailments and illnesses.
Fully aware of the challenging situation in which he found himself, Jesus asked the Pharisees whether or not it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath (Luke 14:3)? The Pharisees remained silent . . . so, Jesus healed them man on the spot and sent him away.
Jesus immediately pressed the issue with the Pharisees and asked them this question:
“If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” (Luke 14:5)
Again, the Pharisees said nothing in reply.
What we see clearly in example after example in the New Testament is Jesus’ reframing the Pharisees understanding of the Law now that the promised Messiah had entered into the world.
While the Pharisees continued to focus on the externalities of keeping the law through meticulous human effort, Jesus was leading them into a deeper understanding of the ultimate purpose of the law – to draw them closer to the heart of God through faith in himself.
In his letter to the Church in Rome, St. Paul reminds the gathered believers that “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).
Against this backdrop of myriad laws, rules and regulations to be memorized and kept in their entirety by the Israelites in order to earn God’s favor, we get a sense of the profound grace Jesus offered all those who listened to him, whether Jew or Gentile.
When asked by a Pharisee, who was an expert in the law, to name the greatest commandment, Jesus offered a stunning response no one had ever offered before:
“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all you soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
English Pastor and Theologian Michael Green captures Jesus’ response to the expert in the law in this way:
“The summary of the law is exceedingly powerful and disturbing, for it takes the question from the area of achievement, which he might conceivably fulfill, to that of attitude, where nobody can boast fulfillment. For people who, like the expert in the law, were strong on ethics and weak on relationships, this strongly relational teaching was a revealing mirror of the heart."
“Religion to Jesus,” noted biblical commentator William Barclay, “was loving God and loving man. He would have said that the only way in which a man can prove that he loves God is by showing that he loves (mankind).”
Jesus’ teaching was a tremendous challenge to the legalism of the Pharisees – and – it provides a fresh challenge to our own legalistic tendencies each time we hear it.
Listen again to William Barclay:
“…It is always easy to let ritual take the place of love. It is always easy to let worship become a matter of the Church building instead of a matter of the whole life. The priest and the Levite could pass by the wounded traveler because they were eager to get on with the ritual of the Temple” (The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Mark, p. 296).
While serving as an Associate Rector in a large, bustling parish in Nashville, Tennessee, I experienced directly this dichotomy between ritualism and love.
I was on my way to a meeting downtown, which was about a 15 minute drive with light traffic. It was an important meeting at the Diocesan offices and I wanted to get there in plenty of time to make a good impression.
On my way out of the church building, a noticed a woman looking at the front tire of her truck with a sense of concern. Unmoved by the scene in front of me, I walked briskly toward my car and intended to walk past her.
Before I could pass by, the woman turned and said, “I have a flat tire.” What I didn’t notice at the time was the sense of desperation in her face. All I saw was a truck with a flat tire situated in a church parking lot shared with the local police station. No big deal.
My response: “It’s no big deal. Just go in there and they can help you out.” And…off I went, a busy young priest on his way to an important ecclesiastical meeting.
It was a learning moment for me and as I became more aware of my own propensity to let a loving response take a back seat to the “pursuit of excellence” in church matters, I noticed the same spirit in others around me.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably all point to an occasion or two when adherence to the comfort of ritual crowded out – or blinded us – to the opportunity to show the love of Christ to a neighbor God had brought into our lives.
The bombshell in Jesus’ response to the expert in the law was the joining together of the commandment to love God with all of one’s heart, soul and mind - with - the commandment to love one’s neighbor as one’s self.
If we’ll allow it to do so, this same conjunction will continually challenge us to live our lives as people marked by love and compassion, rather than as busy religious people overly concerned with being “correct” at the expense of being kind.