The episode in Mt 22:34-40 is the third of the continuous “game of challenge and riposte” between Jesus and the Pharisees (Ch 22-23). The question posed was meant to test Jesus, (v.35; cf v15; but see the less confrontational context in Mark 12:28 where Jesus is approached by a friendly scribe while in Luke 10:25 by a lawyer). He was asked which of the commandments is the greatest.
The word “megas” (μεγάς), is an adjective in the positive degree which means “great” concerning a position of “supreme importance,” “honor,” or “standing” particularly in connection with the kingdom of God (Matt. 5:19; 20:26) and the commandments (Matt. 22:36ff). Thus, it has the sense of the superlative, “the greatest” and is considered a Semitic idiom on singling out from a class.
The question appears, on the face of it, very honest. The Pharisees identified 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). The “thou shalt” or positive laws were 248 laws while the “thou shalt not” or negative were 365. How could anyone keep track of all these? Are some more important than others? Some teachers distinguished between “heavy” and “light” commandments. The Decalogue is obviously important. Then, there was another custom, to sum up the Torah in a small number of precepts or a summary statement. Thus King David proposed eleven (Ps 15), Isaiah six (33:15), Micah three (6:8), and Amos only one (5:4). Even Jesus once prescribed: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt 7:12), very similar to something said by the great Jewish teacher Hillel: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary on it, go and learn it”(Babylonian Talmud, Sabb. 31a).
Jesus’ reply to the query about the “greatest commandment”, combines two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (citing and amending Deut 6:5); and the second is “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). Love of God and love of neighbor are not identified; they are of equal gravity and importance. But Jesus does not discard other commandments for He explicitly adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets”, (v40). Essentially, Jesus’ answer is very orthodox and traditional. If there is any originality in Jesus’ answer, it lies in the combination of these two commandments, and later on, in his understanding of neighbor which he explains in Luke 10:29-33. (Leviticus specifies neighbor as fellow Israelite. Jesus expands the concept of neighbor in Luke to be more inclusive; cf also the first reading Ex 19 – 24).
The commandment of love is an inspiring and challenging summary of what it means to be a Christian. There is no aspect of human conduct that it does not embrace. May our love of God and our neighbor remain inseparable. Amen.