The great commandment. 22:34-40


This is the third of three questions put to Jesus by the religious authorities while he was teaching in the temple during the week before his arrest and crucifixion. Mark's record of both the question and answer is more detailed, cf., Mk.12:28-34. Luke's version of the great commandment is similar, although he uses it to introduce the parable of the Good Samaritan, Lk.10:25-28. In Luke, the great commandment is quoted by the "expert in the law", rather than Jesus.

The passage

v34. Mark has the teacher of the law asking a genuine question, while Matthew paints the question as a further attempt to trip Jesus up. The Sadducees might be debated out, but the Pharisees still have a way to go.

v35-36. One of their number, an "expert in the law" (a scribe, or teacher of the law and member of the Pharisee party) sets out to trip Jesus up with a question that was obviously hotly debated in their own circles. It's possible they had been unable resolve the question themselves and so thought they could show Jesus up. Rabbi Hillel (AD20), when challenged by a Gentile to summarize the law in the time he could stand on one leg, said "what is hateful to you, do not do to anyone else. This is the whole law; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it." In fact, experts of the law at the time were not sure that it was right to grade the law. Some even argued that all the commandments were of equal value. So, obviously the Pharisees were quite taken with their tricky question.

v37-39. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, describing it as the "first and greatest", meaning primary - in order of importance it is first. A person is to love God with their whole being. "Heart... soul.... mind" are not exclusive parts of the human nature. Every faculty and capacity is to love God. For the second commandment, the next in order, Jesus quotes Leviticus 19:18. This command also calls for love, but this time toward the "neighbor". In Leviticus, the neighbor is a fellow Israelite, or a resident alien. Jesus clearly extends the demand of love in the parable of the Good Samaritan in such a way as to make love an ideal of perfection which transcends race or creed.

v40. In what sense does the Law and the Prophets "hang" on these two commandments? All the commandments found in the scriptures, both small and great, hang from the command to love, of which love of God is the foremost. So, the two great commandments serve as a summary of our duty toward God and neighbor. All other commands derive from these two commands. Jesus does not claim that this is an original combination, but it obviously silences the "expert in the law".

The ethics of love

Ethical principles enable human society to survive with some sense of order. There was a time when Western society affirmed a Biblical agenda, particularly the two great commandments and their more extended derivation in the ten commandments. In recent years, Biblical ethics have been sidelined in the quest for a new ethical agenda.

In the West. during the 1970's, hedonism became a popular ethical principle - "I just want to be happy", "happiness is the meaning of life". We all want to be happy, but as an ethical principle it does have limitations. My happiness may result in another's sadness. I may like loud music, but the rest of the family may not. We could argue for the happiness of the greatest number, but then if we are the odd person out, the happiness of others may be our curse.

During the 1990's the social justice agenda of the left began to dominate the political debate, championing the "isms" of our day - multiculturalism, feminism, environmentalism ...... Those exhibiting the evils of sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and the like were pilloried, with laws enacted to charge offenders.

Standing against the ethic of the left there is economic rationalism, the rather shallow ethic of pragmatism. The ethics of an issue then comes down to "does it work?" Racist vilification is then deemed wrong, not because it is unloving, makes people unhappy or in particular, undermines multiculturalism, but because it can affect social cohesion and therefore, economic stability.

Within the flux of secular ethics there stands God's law of love. Jesus summarizes the whole law in two great commands. They are commands that stand together, for we can't love God without loving our neighbor, and we can't love our neighbor unless we love God. In the end, all Biblical law derives from the command to love and serves to give practical expression to love. In that sense, the law serves as a practical manual for life, a law shaped by love. So then, the law is summed up in love, a love that expresses ultimate care toward the other's best interest.

Ultimately, the two great commands transcend, even abolish the formal keeping of Biblical laws. For the believer in Christ, the ideal of love, in union with the indwelling Spirit, compels us to "do by nature things required by the law", demonstrating that the law is written on our hearts, Rom.2:12-16. May we, as well as our national community, be shaped by God's law of love.


1. What is love?

2. Discuss the notion that the two great commandments abolish the necessity of formal adherence to Biblical law.

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