When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him,
"You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
Let’s recall where we are in the Church year. We have been working through the Gospel of Matthew throughout Ordinary Time in Year A. We have moved from the beginning of the Gospel all the way to Passion Week, and now we are in Jerusalem listening to Jesus teach and debate before he goes to his death. Last week we read about the Pharisees and Herodians questioning him about paying taxes to Caesar. After that, the Sadducees came and questioned him about marriage and the resurrection—although that unit is not read in the Year A cycle. Now, one of the better scholars among the Pharisees tests him with a question about the Law.
We should note that there is Davidic kingdom typology going on in this passage. Solomon sat on his throne in Jerusalem and was tested with hard questions from a great number of people, most notably the Queen of Sheba, who came for that very purpose (1 Kings 4:34; 10:1). The whole scenario of Jesus sitting in Jerusalem and defeating all comers with his divine wisdom fulfills the image of wise King Solomon of so many centuries before. Jesus is the greater son of David, and that concept ties in with our responsorial, Psalm 18, which was a royal Davidic Psalm. We also recall that the Law of Moses required the King to meditate constantly on the Law (or Torah; Deut 17:18-20) and thus become an expert in its concepts and application. This is what we see Jesus doing: he has brilliant insight into the interpretation of the Torah, and a very clear view of which laws express principals of primary hermeneutical importance, and which are of lesser significance. He is the Davidic king who has meditated on the Law.
Although the text says the Pharisee meant to “test” him, this question is not asked with the same ill will as the previous questions from the Pharisees and Sadducees. There is not necessarily a trap here. Rabbis debated which laws within the Torah carried precedence, and discovering the way an individual Rabbi prioritized or ranked the Mosaic laws gave insight into his interpretive approach or legal system.
Jesus replies that the greatest commandment is love of God, followed closely by love of neighbor. Our Lord’s reply is not entirely unique: other Rabbis might have given a similar or identical answer. In fact, in Mark’s fuller account of this passage, the Pharisee who asks the question agrees enthusiastically with Jesus’ response (Mark 12:28-34). Our Lord takes the first and greatest commandment from Deut 6:4-5. This is a famous passage known as the Shema, which to this day is recited multiple times a day by pious Jews, similar to the way the Our Father is recited by Christians.
The second, Love your neighbor as yourself, is taken from the so-called “Holiness Code” of Leviticus (Lev 19:18). Many think Jesus invented this law, but he is actually quoting from the Pentateuch.
It is a common misconception that by summarizing the Law with the two commands of love, Jesus was somehow making the law less challenging or demanding. That is hardly the case. Perfectly to live out love for God and love for neighbor is all-consuming and very challenging. It is also a common misconception that the Pharisees had high moral standards, and Jesus criticized them for their high standards and instead dumbed things down to a generic “niceness” to everyone. This is also a completely wrong view. The Pharisees did not necessarily have high moral standards, although some among them (like the Pharisee asking this question) were decent men. The Pharisees had rigorous ritual standards, but frequently low moral demands. Jesus primarily criticizes them for (1) hypocrisy, in holding to high ritual standards but neglecting matters of morality, or (2) using legal reasoning to create loopholes in the moral law that allow them to evade the high demands of love of God and love of neighbor.
By emphasizing that the whole law is summed up in the two commands of love, Jesus does not make it easier to fulfill the law, he makes it more challenging, because there are no loopholes in love! If the criteria for evaluation of moral behavior in any given situation is the imperative of love rather than some external physical criteria, it becomes impossible to create legal ways to evade God’s will.
Of course, love has to be properly understood. Many reduce love to an emotion, or confuse love with “niceness.” There is an emotional component of love, and love can express itself in being nice. But love has to follow truth, and it is not ultimately loving to tell people falsehoods or encourage them along a false path that will not lead to their happiness. The difficulty arises when we love someone who is engaging in self-destructive behavior, but does not realize it. And when we point it out—motivated by love—they perceive us not as loving but as hostile or narrow-minded or “traditional” or intolerant or some other category.
Let’s discuss what it means to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind. The heart (Gk. kardia) can be understood as the seat of the emotions or affections, so loving God with the heart means cultivating our affection and emotional attachment to him. The soul (psyche) can be understood as our spiritual nature, so loving God with one’s whole soul is seeking spiritual union with him, the “unitive way.” Loving God with the mind (dianoia) is an intellectual endeavor, seeking to know God, to understand the truth about Him, his nature, and his creation. An anti-intellectual spirituality would be a failure to love God with the mind. We can observe a rough analogy to the classic three stages of the spiritual life: the purgative involves learning to love God with the heart vs. disordered passions or desires; the illumanitive involves loving God with the mind, as our minds are enlightened with the knowledge of God; and the unitive involves spiritual union, loving God with the soul.
Jesus wasn’t a lawless hippy or an anarchist revolutionary. He respected the role of law in human society and personal life. He and his parents were careful to observe the laws in force at the time, as we see from the infancy narratives in Luke. However, Jesus stressed that the law was ordered to love, and has to be interpreted in light of love, which is more than an emotion, but fundamentally an act of the will in which we will the good of the person who is loved. Love needs to be understood as an act of the will based on truth—this is where our culture misunderstands love. In any event, Jesus taught that law was ordered to love and had to be interpreted in light of love. This is more than we can humanly live up to, which is why we need to exercise faith and receive the sacraments. Through faith and the sacraments, Jesus can fill us with his love, such that St. Paul will say:
God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Rom 5:5)
Rom. 13:8 Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
But the love of the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts is key. We can’t live up to the command of love until we learn to love with the love of God which has been given us. Our own feeble efforts are not going to be sufficient; that would be Pelagianism.