notre dame montreal The greatest commandment

The greatest commandment

Matthew 22:34

No more questions – decisions need to be made

Over the past few weeks and in the previous passages from Matthew’s gospel we’ve seen Jesus answering a variety of questions from the political and religious authorities. 

Questions about His authority (Mt 21 v 23 ff), whether taxes should be paid to Caesar (Mt 22 v 15 ff), marriage at the resurrection (Mt 22 v 23 ff) and today it’s a question about which is the greatest commandment (Mt 22 v 34 ff).

For Jesus it’s the last question He’ll answer before He meets the authorities again in the Garden of Gethsemane.

It’s almost as if the Pharisees were saying to Jesus, ‘OK if you know the law so well, what the greatest commandment out of the 613 commands in the law of Moses (248 positive ‘thou shalt’ = allegedly the number of bones and organs in the (male) body, 365 negative ‘thou shalt not’ = the number of days in a year)?’

For any Jew this was a simple question and therefore seemingly strange to ask Jesus.

Jesus replied with the commandment that very good Jew would recite at morning and evening prayer in the words of the Sh’ma, a mixture of a prayer and a creedal statement familiar to all.

Sh’ma Yis’ra’eil Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad
Hear Israel, the Lord is Our God, The Lord is One – which then continues
Blessed be the Name of His Glorious Kingdom for Ever and Ever
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might…

For a Pharisee this commandment and the Sh’ma was about defining Israel now and in the future.

  1. It confirmed the existence of God
  2. It defined the special relationship of God with the Jewish people
  3. It confirmed the uniqueness and unity of God

This was central to the Jewish belief, faith and way of life.

But rather than continue with the Sh’ma which continues with the statement that ‘…these words that I command you today shall be in your heart…’, Jesus seems to go off at a tangent giving them a second about loving their neighbours as themselves.

Only it’s not so much of a tangent.  Because in speaking about loving their neighbours Jesus is questioning whether those words truly are in their hearts.

It’s as if Jesus is saying, ‘No more questions – decisions now need to be made’.

Love of God is about a relationship, not about knowledge.  Fortunate for all of us!

The first commandment is about what we think and believe; the second is about what that means in our hearts and what we do.

When we show love to those around us do we do it from a sense of duty or a sense of compassion.  When Jesus reaches out to the sick and needy, the unloved and the unclean, He doesn’t do it from a sense of duty but a sense of deep love and compassion.

The commands that Jesus is speaking about are not orders to be carried out, but an invitation to live life in a new and different way.  It’s not just the mind that needs to be educated and renewed, it’s the heart too.

In talking about neighbours (remember the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel), Jesus challenges the hearers to throw open the borders to all.  Israel and the Jewish faith exist for the sake of the world, not the other way round.  The Jews have responsibilities and commitments, not just to themselves, but to the world.

And if Jesus’ answer could not be questioned, Jesus’ question could not be answered.

Because Jesus continues the conversation by asking if we are to love the Lord our God with all our hearts etc, who is this Messiah Lord who we are to love?

Quoting from Psalm 110, held by the Jews to have been written by David himself, Jesus goes right to the heart of the Jewish faith.  How can David’s Lord be David’s son.

Genealogy has been all the rage since the advent of the internet, and even before.  We want to know where we came from and who we are.

Our character, at least in part, is shaped by where we come from, shaped by our relationships and our ancestors.

Jesus is saying to the listeners, our faith it’s not just about what we think and believe, it’s not even just about how that might lead us to act, it’s about who we are.

Jesus challenges the old way of thinking that was that we think and believe is critical and then defines what we do and how we act.  How we act then defines who we are.  That’s still the world view today.

Jesus transforms that old way of thinking by stating who we are, In Jesus case, the Messiah, in ours, Sons and daughters of God, defines how we act.  How we act then is a visible demonstration of what we think and what we believe.

If we love others as ourselves because of what we believe, if we are not careful it becomes a chore and a duty.  If we love others as ourselves because of what we are we see them as equals and all that we do is from a sense of love and compassion for all the created, if fallen, world.

The time for asking questions was over.  Now it’s time for decisions.  When we love God with all our heart, soul and strength/mind/will/intellect/intent/understanding, Jesus is our Lord and Messiah.  Who we are changes fundamentally, and our lives are changed forever. 

The new Joshua would do what the law can never do – lead all God’s people home at last.