Matthew 22:34-40 - The Chief Commandment
22:34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Background: It was common in Jesus’ day for faithful Jews to argue about the law. How was it to be interpreted? How was life to be organized in order to faithfully keep it? Opinions abounded. In general there were two schools of thought. 1) The Pharisees believed that the law should be expanded and articulated to cover all possibilities. 2) Others, particularly followers of Rabbi Hillel believed that the law should be reduced or honed to its basic fundamental principles. Once when Rabbi Hillel was asked to state the whole of the law while standing on one foot, he stood on one foot and said “What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary.” In today’s passage, Jesus picks up on that theme and turns it from a negative statement into a positive one. He also links two dominant schools of thought together. Many argued about the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor. Did one detract from the intensity of the other? Jesus links these two great loves and in essence says, “loving God obligates us to love neighbor.”
The context is still confrontation and testing by the authorities. It is not entirely clear here whether the questioner presents the question in a neutral context. He does not address Jesus with the traditional title of respect, but at the same time he may genuinely want to hear what Jesus has to say.
Vs. 34 – Pharisees and Sadducees– These were members two of the most important religio-political parties in Judaism. They were highly respected and influential. They disagreed on a number of matters of scripture interpretation, notably on whether or not there was the possibility of an after life. The Pharisees said, “maybe.” The Sadducees said, “no way.” In the previous debate the Sadducees had tried to trap Jesus in what they saw as the illogic of a belief in the afterlife. His logic silenced them resoundingly.
They – the Pharisees
Lawyer – (nomikos) This word is only used here in Matthew. It refers to a professional theologian, a doctor of the Law.
Vs. 36 – Teacher – most scholars see this word as an insincere title.
Greatest - lit. chief. The question was one of priority. How does one begin to live out the law? It is possible that they were laying another trap for Jesus here. There was a wide school of thought that held that all commands of God were equal and equally binding. After all, who are human beings to decide and rank them? In all the rabbis counted 613 commands in total. It is also possible, though less likely, that the lawyer was really trying to understand how to place his priorities.
Vs. 37 – You shall love…. – This is the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4. Pious Jews recited these words each morning and evening. To link the Shema to the chief commandment was a way of saying that people were to get their lives consistent with their worship.
love – agape – active benevolent giving to others without expectation of return, not rooted in emotion but in God’s love. It also carries the notion of commitment.
Heart – the inner life, the center of personality and will…to love with all the heart means to let God direct ones thinking, dreaming, desiring, and willing.
Soul – hb. Nephesh, a complex Hebrew concept rendered here in Greek. It means something like vital principle. The nephesh is what makes someone a living creature. Nephesh is what makes one unique, celebrates life, indeed is life itself. To love God with all the nephesh is to love God as life with life, self, celebration.
Mind – in Hebrew thought this concept of knowledge or intellect would have been understood in heart. Jesus probably adds this Greek concept to help his non-Hebrew audience understand that love of God includes the mind. A part of the call to love God with the mind is to be an honest thinker. We are not expected to check our brains at the door in order to love God.
Vs. 39 – like – this second commandment is like but not identical to the first.
neighbor – This second scripture comes from Leviticus 19:18. Unlike earlier Hebrew thought, neighbor does not just refer to ones immediate clan. Jesus uses this word to include all people, including ones enemies.
As – in the same way that….active seeking of the good of.
Vs. 40 – hang – the image is of a door on its hinges.
Questions for Reflection
1. Do you think that all of God’s commandments in the Bible are of equal weight? If so, how do you deal with those you ignore (tithing, dietary laws, not judging for example)? If not, how do you decide which ones you must obey and which are no longer relevant?
2. In this text Jesus does not do away with any of the Law. Rather he seems to give a relative weight to Love. At the same time, he says that Love is like an umbrella law. Everything else springs from it. In other words, if we love, all the rest of the Law takes its rightful place. How do you think that obedience relates to love?
3. It can be hard to talk about loving God when God is so mysterious, other and beyond us. How do you experience loving God? How do you act on that love?
4. What does it mean in your daily life for you to love your neighbor? How do you organize your life around daily loving?