Thought for the day
Jesus does not pluck his summary teaching from the air—he quotes from the Shema Yisrael, the great daily prayer of Judaism found in Deuteronomy 6. The second part about the love of neighbour is taken from Leviticus 18. This mission statement stands as a resounding appeal to us today. We are asked not just to believe that there is a God, but to love God. We are asked not just to respect our neighbour, but to love our neighbour. Love is not only the truth about human beings but also the truth about God, who is love itself.
Great and loving God, your love for us is beyond what we can grasp with our minds and hearts. Let such great love for all awaken in us a true love of you and lead to authentic service of our neighbour.
Matt 22:34 Now when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they assembled together. 35 And one of them, an expert in religious law, asked Jesus a question to test him: 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 Jesus said to him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
This is certainly not the most obscure passage in the Bible—the task lies elsewhere, that is, in living it. However a few remarks may keep us open to the challenge.
This brief exchange is found in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 12:28-31 and Luke 10:25-28). In reality, it is also found in the Fourth Gospel with its extraordinary emphasis on love—love from God, love for God and love for our brothers and sisters. It is found in a series of questions from his opponents to Jesus—pay taxes, the resurrection and now the greatest commandment. The following story is another question about the identity of the Messiah. These strained encounters are framed by the parable of the wicked tenants and Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and the Pharisees.
Given the extensive instructions in the Hebrew Bible (some 613 commandments), there was a discussion among the rabbis regarding the core or essence of the Law. This discussion can be understood in that context.
It is noticeable that this the third in a series of conflict stories is sharpest in Matthew. Mark begins: 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?” (Mark 12:28) Luke is sharper but without the animus against the Pharisees Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 10:25).
Kind of writing
As we have seen before, these vignettes from the life of Jesus are best understood as chreiai, scenes which illustrate the “needful” or what is necessary. It is in the form of questions and answers. In the surrounding stories, Jesus trumps his opponents and we are given their reactions: “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” (Matt 22:22); “And when the crowd heard it, they were astounded at his teaching.” (Matt 22:33); “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” (Matt 22:46). In this particular scene, however, there is no response—presumably because Jesus has reported perfectly orthodox biblical teaching with which they cannot but agree. Even on the level of Matthew’s community there can be no disagreement over this.
Old Testament background
Matthew and Luke have a version which is significantly different to Mark’s, chiefly found in the introductory formulae.Old Testament background
(i) The first reply of Jesus reflects the great prayer of Judaism, the Shema Yisrael, taken from the book of Deuteronomy:
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. (Deut 6:4-9)
(ii) The second reply of Jesus quotes the book of Leviticus:
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev 19:18)
Cf. He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
The Jewish tradition continued to reflect on this, as we see in two examples taken from the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs:
Love the Lord and your neighbour; (Issachar 5:2) Throughout all your life love the Lord, and one another with a true heart. (Dan 5:3)
New Testament foreground
(i) Matthew cites the Leviticus text elsewhere: “Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Matt 19:19)
(ii) The command (!) to love God and your neighbour is found especially in the First Letter of John:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God—because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:7-12)
“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jas 1:26-27)
(i) Like a good rabbi, Paul is also interested in summary statements of the Law:
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”” (Gal 5:14)
Elsewhere, of course, Paul teaches love—for example in the famous 1 Cor 13—sometimes in less remembered texts, such as:
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour.” (Rom 12:9-10)
“Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one.” (1 Thess 4:9-12)
Verse 34 The Pharisees and the Sadducees did not agree on all points of doctrine (e.g., the resurrection). As Matthew tells it, the Pharisees (a) are pleased to see their enemies at a loss and (b) are trying to drive their point home.
Verse 35 The contrast with the version in Mark is considerable: One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another (Mark 12:28). Lawyer here means someone versed in religious law, i.e., a kind of theologian or Bible scholar.
Verse 36 This question was often asked in the later rabbinic tradition and the answer there given does not contradict our text. Matthew and Luke agree on the use of the word “teacher” here. Greater—not however in the sense that other commands may be neglected but rather in the sense that the love commandment is the core ethos which makes sense of the others.
Verse 37 The Shema Yisrael still prayed three times daily by practicing Jews. Notice that Matthew omits (contrary to Mark) the opening words of the Shema.
Verse 38 This verse, which gives clear priority to the love of God, is found only in Matthew. This pointed evaluation is perhaps best grasped in the light of 1 John above.
Verse 39 It is often commented these days that there is an implied approval of loving your self—and there is, except that the emphasis here falls on loving your neighbour the same way.
Verse 40 A summary statement. Law = the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses. Cf., “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12)
The whole incident is designed to show that Jesus’ insight into the Law is deeper and richer. Cf. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
Pointers for prayer
1. You may feel some sympathy with the Jews struggling to cope with 613 laws and wondering which were the important ones. But have you ever felt overwhelmed by the rules and regulations of your own tradition? And have you ever been blessed by meeting someone, or reading something, that was able to cut through all the layers and point out to you what is essential in life? Who was that person? What did s/he say or do? Is there some phrase or text that encapsulates such wisdom for you?
2. If you were asked what is most important in life, what would your answer be? Recall the experiences and relationships you have had. Which are the ones that you treasure most? What has particularly enriched your life? How would you encourage another person who asked you how s/he could live a full life?
Your love, O God is boundless.
We who were strangers have been made your children.
We who were defenceless have been brought into your household.
Keep us mindful of your deeds of mercy, that we may love you with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.