Which Commandment is the Greatest? October 27, 2008

by Christine Wenderoth
Director, JKM Library, Associate Professor of Ministry

This is a mighty strange story.  I know we're supposed to worry about commandments and which is the most important and what they mean and stuff like that, but in the mean time, I'm just kinda floored by what a weird story this is. [in whispered, conspiratorial tones] "When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them--a lawyer [well, of course]--asked him a question to test him."  I mean, what do we have here, a bunch of toughs, jockeying for turf?  I can just imagine Marlon Brando combing back his hair and sauntering up to Jesus...."Hey, teach! Which commandment is the greatest?" Well, OK, maybe that's the picture we're supposed to get: the religious establishment as hoodlums, keeping the schoolyard clean of riffraff.  And we get that impression, don't we, that Sadducees and Pharisees were all the time trying to trap Jesus into one gaff or another.

But what makes this story really weird, in my mind, is that Jesus does sorta fall into their trap.  Not with his answer, which is theologically perfect--wise, clever, the whole bit--but afterwards.  Jesus joins their game of one-upmanship and entrapment, and postures every bit as much as they did.  "What do you think of the Messiah?' he asks menacingly. 'Whose son is he?"  And after they flounder around and show their ignorance, he lets them have it: "'If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?' No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions." 

Well, wasn't Jesus clever?  Didn't he just fix them?  -- What's going on here?  How can our Lord and Savior stoop to their level like this?

Let's concede for the moment that the heart of this story, what we're supposed to notice, are the words Jesus offers about the commandments.  Let's concede that Jesus was "set up" by these anxious, posturing Pharisees, for our benefit maybe, to tell us something important about the commandments. And let's see if we can find anything in what Jesus says that tells us anything about the story that frames the Greatest Commandment.

"Which commandment in the law is greatest?"  That's the question put to Jesus by the lawyer.  Now, we know that the so-called Ten Commandments are foundational for the Jewish people.  God spoke these. But we also know that the Jewish community by Jesus' time, had hundreds of laws, laws which governed every aspect life--religious, economic, legal, cultural.  This questioning lawyer had plenty to keep him busy, and he knew it!   Our lawyer friend here would have also known how intertwined these laws were.  Religious laws were economic and legal.  To change or eliminate one law would have been a complex thing, unraveling the fabric of Jewish life.  So the question, "What commandment in the law is the greatest?" has all the marks of a trick question. What's the one commandment you can't eliminate, without the whole society toppling over?  What's the one law that includes all the others, from which all other laws follow?  There's no right answer, the lawyer may have thought.  I've got him! Whichever commandment he chooses, it will impact all the others.  But then rats! There is an answer: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind."   Jesus does not rank the Ten Commandments: "Do this one, cut yourself some slack on the other nine."  Jesus does not say, "Look, some laws are expendable.  You don't have to worry about every jot and tittle.  Just hold that bottom line."  He does not claim there's some flaw in the legal system, and the Pharisees are wasting their time.  No.  Jesus is saying, laws, all laws, all the "do this's", all the "but don't do that's" proceed from the love and worship of God.  Our economics and legal responsibilities, our customs and community rules are all inseparable from our faith and trust in God.  God is the center of our life.  This is fundamental, "the greatest and first commandment." 

So, one doesn't murder, or commit adultery, or steal; one remembers the sabbath and honors one's parents, because one loves God.  And so forth and so on, well beyond the Ten Commandments.

But then Jesus pulls a move that is very clever, very clever indeed.  He goes on: "And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" A second is like it.  Meaning, these two are virtually the same. You love the Lord your God by loving your neighbor as yourself. Love is something you can't do in theory or in the abstract.  Think of how love works in a relationship.  You may think you love your partner; you may say when asked, you love your partner.  But if you don't speak your love through words of endearment, if you don't show your love through little acts of care and kindness, how will your partner ever know? How can thinking you love someone, but never demonstrating that love really be love? How many relationships have ended because love unexpressed was assumed to be the absence of love?

Love: isn't this what God's incarnation in Jesus was all about?  How can we trust the love of God at all unless we can see that love?   Wasn't God's decision to share fully our mortal lot, including the experience of dying common to us all, a visible expression of God's love for us?  We know God loves us because we can see that love in Jesus, in his ministry and his tasting death on our behalf.  God's love and the incarnation: the two are like each other.

Now, we could talk more about how these two commandments are inseparable. We could talk more about who our neighbors are. We could pursue all of these questions: we could nitpick and wax eloquent.  But I think that basically, at some fundamental level, we know what Jesus meant when he joined these two commandments: you can't love God without treating people as you would wish to be treated.

My question is a little more focused. I want to know: did Jesus--by trumping the Pharisees on this matter of David's Son and reducing them to silence--did Jesus love the Pharisees as himself?  Is this an example of the love of God?

You're not supposed to ask questions like this, are you? Jesus is supposed to be sacrosanct.  We're not encouraged to imagine Jesus with a sense of humor, or a short temper, or an irritating habit, or crooked teeth and bad breath.  Jesus was human, but a perfect, pious, irreproachable human.  You've seen the halos.

So my question is impertinent.  How could Jesus not demonstrate love of the neighbor?  He was the Messiah!  And yet here it seems that Jesus has joined the schoolyard bullies in their bullying. 

Yes, the visible expression of God's love for us is the Incarnation. Wasn't the visible expression of God's love for us, then, God's decision to share our mortal lot, including--yes--the experience of dying common to us all--but including also all the foibles and difficulties of human life? Is it not possible that being fully human, Jesus could occasionally slip?  Maybe the day of this encounter he had a head cold, or a tooth ache. Maybe he hadn't eaten a decent meal in two days and was crabby with hunger.  He was tired of being bullied and harassed by these guys all the time!  Why not, in a moment of weakness, let them have it, just this once.  Shut the pups up!  Let them slink away with their tails between their legs! It'll feel goooood!

Or put differently, Jesus, by reducing his tormentors to silence, demonstrated here with his own behavior just how difficult it is to love the neighbor.  It's all well and good to tie the love of God with the love of neighbor.  It's all well and good to say love cannot be abstract and ideal but must be demonstrated and expressed in actual acts of love to real people.  But man! how hard it is always to love, always to be kind, always to be generous.  Especially when the neighbor is a bully, or when you feel tired or sick or frightened or cornered.  So maybe, after Jesus had uttered the truth in pure form, maybe even Jesus acknowledged the difficulty that is loving the neighbor, when he stooped to the level of his Pharisaic tormentors and one-upped them into silence.

At least we have in this weird story the demonstration of just how hard it is to live by the greatest commandment, no matter how true we know it to be...and no matter who we are.


Matthew 22: 34-46

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