Matthew 22v34-46, Ordinary 30/Pentecost 19
The greatest commandment
The greatest commandment
Jesus has stunned the Sadducees earlier. He muzzled them, put them to silence. The Sadducees were muzzled in the sense that they didn't know how to answer Jesus. He made them look foolish. So they "mustered their forces", and one of the Pharisses chose an expert in the law" - a scribe who is learned in the law of Moses, a lawyer, to put a question in order to test him, catch him out with this question. The question is a theological question to Jesus regarding the grading of God's laws - which is the greatest commandment of the law?
Teacher - rabbi. "Which is the greatest commandment? Jesus is being baited into a discussion over the relative importance of the 613 biblical laws, and this for the purpose of catching him out and damaging his credibility.
Jesus gives an answer, dividing the law into the first and second commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your passion, prayer and intelligence". Love your neighbour as yourself". For a Jew, one's neighbour is their fellow Jew and for many Christians this means a Christian neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan widens the definition of neighbour to the whole human race.
Jesus sums up his answer by pointing out that these two laws are pivotal such that all laws "hang" from them, all the laws of Moses and the teachings of the prophets.
So this passage is the third of three questions put to Jesus by the religious authorities. Matthew has placed them in the context of Jesus' teaching ministry in the temple during the week before his arrest and crucifixion and his answers contributed to his arrest and death. Matthew's context implies that the question serves as another attempt to catch Jesus out, to "test/tempt" him. The trap possibly relates to grading the law. Arguing for a relative weight, or even an equal weight, will leave Jesus open to attack, particularly as he was viewed as someone who had come to "abolish" the law. Jesus does indeed grade the law by giving two pivotal laws (all laws "hang" from these two), first, love of God, and second, love of neighbour.
This passage prompts numerous questions:
i] What does it mean to love God?
ii] Who is my neighbour"? For a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, everyone is our neighbour.
iii] What does loving your neighbour mean?
iv] What does it mean to love your neighbour as yourself"
v] How is love of God and love of our neighbour related? In my theology caring for broken humanity is the same as loving God.
vi] Are both commandments equally important, or is the first greater ?
vii] In what sense does the Law and the Prophets "hang" on these two commandments?
viii] Does the law of love dispense with / replace the Torah? This is certainly argued by some, but at no point does Jesus abrogate the law; he actually reinforces it. The Torah outlines the practical details of love. God calls for a heart relationship with him thus establishing the priority of love within the law.
ix] Are these two commandments laws to be done or ideals to be aimed at? In a sense, both intentions are present in the commands. On the one hand, these two commands summarize God's perfect law, demanding a righteousness beyond our doing. As such, they remind us that right-standing in the sight of God is neither gained nor maintained by law obedience. We are forced to rely in faith on God's mercy.