Which Commandment of the Law is the Greatest?

Which Commandment of the Law is the Greatest?

But this is not what God wants for us. He created us for righteousness, not sin. God became man, not just to teach us with words what true love is, but to show us what it looks like and how it is lived.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

The Pharisee in Matthew 22 is described as a scholar of the law. So, he would have been well schooled in the teaching contained in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, the Torah, as well as the writings of the Prophets.

I don’t know why he asked Jesus this question, the text says that he was testing Jesus, but the Lord’s answer provides us with a crucial truth that is sometimes overlooked – we cannot say that we love God, if we do not also love one another.

It is easy for us to criticize the Pharisees of the Lord’s time as if this is a lesson that only they needed. The truth is that most of us also need to be reminded from time to time. Although we might say that we love God, we often don’t show much love to those the Lord places in our lives.

God gave the Israelites (and us) the Ten Commandments. The Torah also required that they observe 613 additional commands.

Just as the Ten Commandments were divided into two tablets—the first tablet contains three commandments regarding the love we are to give to God, and the second tablet contains seven commandments regarding how we are to love our neighbor—so too did these 613 additional commands deal with love of God and neighbor.

Devout Israelites tried to honor and obey all of these. So, when the Pharisee asked Jesus which was the greatest, it was to these that he referred. Which one is the greatest?

Jesus did not give just one command as an answer. He referenced two passages from the Torah instead.

First, from Deuteronomy 6:5, Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

And then from Leviticus 19:18, Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The Torah had identified the Israelites’ as neighbors to one another, but we know that Jesus expanded that understanding to included everyone… recall the Good Samaritan, for example.

These two commands, to love God above all with everything we are and have, and to love neighbor as ourselves, are everything! Jesus says that all the Law and the teachings of the Prophets depend on these two commandments. By tying these two together, Jesus emphasizes that in order to truly love God, we must also love each other.

When you or I go to God with a contrite heart, when we examine ourselves and enter the confessional, it is to confess how we have failed to keep these two commands.

In a world that is fallen and broken, it is all too easy to break these commands. It can be difficult to forgive and forget one who has hurt us, who has committed some horrible act of betrayal or violence. Bearing grudges seems to come easier than offering love and mercy. And so, strife wins out over peace and sorrow over joy.

But this is not what God wants for us. He created us for righteousness, not sin. God became man, not just to teach us with words what true love is, but to show us what it looks like and how it is lived.

Jesus, Our God who became man, perfectly models for us how to live according the two greatest commandments. We see it in the humility he demonstrated by taking on our humanity, by living in poverty, by loving even those who rejected him and put him to death. He loved in small ways and large; a smile, a healing touch, dying on a cross. He loves you, warts and all.

In redeeming you, he offers you new life. In baptism he gives you his grace, a share of his divine life.

During Mass at the Altar, when I add a few drops of water to the wine, I pray, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the Divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.

He infuses us with His very life and with the theological virtues of Faith, which enables us to believe what he reveals, with Hope by which we confidently trust in His promises, and Charity which empowers us to love God above all and our neighbor as ourselves.

It is in surrendering to Jesus and living this sacramental life of grace that we can keep these two great commandments and find peace and joy, even during strife and sorrow.

As you begin each day, ask the Lord to grant you the strength and courage to live these virtues and love God above all and to love one another as He loves you. And remember, if we do not love others as Jesus loves them, we do not love God. Ask his help. He will not let you down.

Into the deep…

Image credit: “Christ Among the Pharisees” (detail) | Jacob Jordaens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A popular and engaging speaker, Deacon Bickerstaff is available to speak at your parish or event. Be sure to check out his Speaker Page to learn more. Into the Deep is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™.

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