Matthew 22:34-40 4 questions 3) The great Commandment

The King’s defence

When people believe in urban legends and conspiracy theories and someone confronts them with the truth they will not listen and change, they just personally attack. That is all over social media, you find it in the editorials of newspapers and in blogs.

There is nothing new about that. The religious and political authorities are attacking Jesus with several questions, three of which are recorded in Matthews Gospel, the most contentious questions they can think of. Yet in the end, I am looking at the last of these here, they cannot find fault in Jesus.

Free photo by Anna Shvets on

34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 22:34-40

The only way is ethics

After the political question about paying taxes to Caesar and the doctrinal question about the resurrection comes an ethical question, “Which is the greatest law?”

The Jewish law at that time had a thing called Corban, which means a sacrifice or offering to God among the ancient Hebrews. This had been extended by Jesus’ time to include anything, not just sacrifices. Jesus said:

10 For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) — 12 then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother,

Mark 7:10-12 ESVUK

This question of the greatest commandment corresponds to the third parable that Jesus had just given. The people who claim to follow God’s law but ignore the social side of that law, how God wants us to treat others, are not the people who follow Jesus. You can preach salvation all you like but if you also preach against the most vulnerable in society, the poor, the asylum seeker, and those who face prejudice, due to colour or sexual orientation then you are not doing the will of God.

Ethics is the work of the Holy Spirit. Sin can blunt the conscience so that what we once thought was wrong but did anyway becomes OK. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin in a way that commandments and laws cannot, this is not just for issues about commandments and laws but about morality too. The third parable of Jesus in Matthew 21 and 22 was about rejecting the Holy Spirit and the third question to Jesus is also the same. The Pharisees were sticklers for keeping the Jewish law and ane of them, a lawyer was probably expecting a deep answer. What he got instead was simplicity.

The scribes had documented 613 laws, which as no one could have kept them all had been divided into heavy (important) and light (unimportant).

Jesus quoted something all Jews would have known, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” was the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) which every Jew would have recited every day. To someone looking for intellectual debate having Jesus quote something taught to children would be an insult. But then Jesus made it worse by taking something from the light law and saying it had equal status with the Shema.

Jesus put people first before theology, he showed love not rejection to known sinners which can be seen when a woman caught in the act of adultery was brought to him. God’s love for all, even those who have broken God’s law, is shown in Jesus and the Holy Spirit urges us to be like Jesus. Living by the Spirit can bring us into conflict with those who are legalistic in their faith.

Jesus accepts everyone who comes to him, good and bad alike and calls us to be the same. Love for other people is as important to being a follower of Jesus as loving God.

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