The Great Commandment

Ordinary 30A

Matthew 22: 34 40


When our Lord completed the parable of the Wedding Feast, the senior Pharisees he had been addressing retired to a private chamber in the Temple to plot his destruction.

They sent their disciples, together with some Herodians, to listen to him, and trap him with his own words. They tried this concerning payment of the hated poll tax to the Emperor in Rome, but Jesus only impressed them with his incisive and matchless exposition.

When those disciples reported back to the elders who had sent them, the Sadducees, a completely different party who had no sympathy with the Pharisees, came and pitched their skills against the rabbi from Galilee. They asked Jesus an absurd, ridiculous question to which our Lord responded absolutely appropriately. They also came off "second best" and left the scene astonished (if not embarrassed) at our Lord's astuteness.

When a number of Pharisees heard that Jesus had dealt a decisive blow to the powerful Sadducees, they gathered around Jesus almost in an atmosphere of victorious celebration. They despised the arrogance of the Sadducees, and never seemed able to argue successfully against them. This group of admirers does not appear to contain any of the Pharisees plotting our Lord's death. They were off doing their planning. These gathering around genuinely wanted to engage in rabbinic interaction. We have to remember that not all Pharisees were enemies of Jesus; some were neutral, and some even were discreet admirers.

Some Notes On the Text

Verse 34

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. News travels fast, especially when a new rabbi in town, in a few words, demonstrates that the Sadducees do not understand the Scriptures they like to quote and misuse.

Verses 35 and 36

One of them, an expert in the Law, tested him with this question:

"Master, which is the great commandment in the Law?"

Some modern translations have "greatest commandment". The question, however, is not one of greatest importance. The enquirer is asking our Lord to give his opinion on a matter much debated by the more experienced rabbis. The question, taking into account the cultural background, implied the following:

"Rabbi: Our fathers of old, desiring to keep ever before them the slightest intimation from God towards us in the Scriptures, carefully listed every commandment he gave, arriving at the number of 613. As part of our practice to keep these in our mind and heart, we love to hear the Doctors of the Law explain, in their view, which one of the commandments precedes the others, and leads to them. We would be honoured to hear your view, if you would share your very great knowledge with us."

An example of typical rabbinical commentary is contained in the writings of the great Jewish scholar Philo, who was a contemporary of our Lord:

"To speak briefly, of the innumerable detailed exhortations and commandments, the two which in the most general manner sum up the whole, are the duties of piety and holiness towards God, and of lovingkindness and justice towards man. Each of these is subdivided into various special duties, all of them praiseworthy.

Verses 37 and 38

Jesus replied:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment."

Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6: 5 as the first part of his answer. We need to note that the three categories of heart, soul, and mind, were not always distinct in Hebrew culture, and tended to overlap, as it were. He is saying is effect:

"God calls you to love him with every part of your being. That commandment precedes all others because it has the greatest (i.e. most widespread) flow-on effect through all revealed Scripture."

Verses 39 and 40

The above did not really surprise our Lord's listeners as they had already ascertained that he had a very extensive knowledge of Sacred Scripture. What followed, however, did surprise them, because he immediately added:

And the second is like it:

Love your neighbour as yourself.

(Note: Both of the O.T. quotations by Jesus are rather free translations of the Greek Old Testament, not the Hebrew).

To their very great interest, Jesus coupled Leviticus 19: 18 as a kind of "first equal". Only then did he round off his answer meeting the requirements of the original question:

All the Law and the prophets
hang on these two commandments.

The use of the word "hang" is in the sense of a family tree chart in which what precedes gives rise to what follows. He has answered the challenge. All of the 613 commandments can, in some way, derive their origin from, these two.


Jesus did not comment on his answer; nor did his listeners. It was accepted without question by them as it should be by us. The challenge to us is to put it into action!

(Further reading J.C.Ryle)

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