Summary of the Text
A Clash of Kingdoms: Just as with the lectionary passage next week, our text takes place in the temple courts during Holy Week. Jesus’ Kingdom of God is now clashing head on with the religious authorities of his day (Sadducees, Pharisees, and Scribes) as Jesus goes head to head with the religious experts of his time. Our passage provides the opportunity for Jesus to teach the two-fold summation of the law (torah): loving God and loving one’s neighbor.
Muzzling the Sadducees and Arguing with the Pharisees: Our text begins with a pronouncement that Jesus has already “silenced” (NIV) the Sadducees. The actual word used here by Matthew is phimos (Greek) which means to “muzzle.” In other words, Jesus had little trouble dispatching the logic of the Sadducees. The Sadducees, if you may recall, are those entrusted with overseeing worship in the Temple.
They had lots of religious authority and power, but were considered theological lightweights in comparison to the Pharisees. One might suppose that the Pharisees were disappointed by this, but in fact, as rivals to the Sadducees, they probably would have been excited to take on the fight: “Pick on someone your own size,” they might have said. Jesus’ response could probably be something to the effect of, “bring it on.”
What is the Greatest Commandment?: Now it’s the Pharisees’ chance to try and catch Jesus in a theological trap. They sent an “expert in the law.” The literal word used here is nomikos (literally, “learned in the law”), used only here in Matthew’s gospel. Of course, we’re not talking about a Western-style practitioner of jurisprudence. We’re talking about an expert in the Jewish Law, the Torah.
“Teach us, Oh Great One”: The lawyer begins “teacher,” which one might assume is a term of respect, but really it is an insult, in the same way we might say, “oh brilliant one, please bestow your wisdom upon us.” This lawyer tests Jesus by asking, “what’s the greatest commandment?” On the surface, this might seem a normal question, but behind the question is a well-planned test: for the Jews, every single law was considered equally important to another. To say one was lesser than another was to devalue God’s perfect law as a whole.
Jesus’ Response to the Lawyer: Jesus decides nevertheless to answer the lawyer. He begins by quoting the Shema, the great prayer/scripture at the heart of the Jewish Faith:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5, ESV, emphasis added)
Jesus focuses exclusively on verse 5. This, Jesus says, is the “greatest commandment.” It is the foundation for every law in the Torah. If you don’t love God first, you will never be able to follow the rigorous demands of the rest of the law. Jesus will criticize the Pharisees in the following passage for just this problem: their motivation is not in loving God, but in receiving admiration and honor. The truly devout Jew, or Christian, must keep the love of God at the center of their faith.
Then, Jesus does something quite unexpected. He pairs the love commandment from Deut. 6:5 with another verse from the Torah, this time from Leviticus 19:18 (NIV, emphasis added):
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.
What Does it Mean to Love our Neighbor? This second part of the greatest commandment flows out of our full-hearted love of God. When we love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, we are able to love our neighbor “as ourselves.” This last part of the commandment might seem a bit odd to us. Many of us do not especially “love ourselves” a whole lot. But in this case, what Jesus is saying is essentially, “the way you look out for yourself, is the same way you should look out for your neighbor.”
An Illustration of Loving our Neighbor as Ourselves: I was discussing this with TPW contributor Scott Bullock, and he gave a great illustration of how this works itself out. He said,
You know, late in the evening, after dinner, I’ll have a desire to serve myself a nice bowl of ice cream, with toppings and syrup. And often I’ll think to myself, maybe my wife would like some ice cream too. But then I begin to rationalize what I serve her.
Do I go the full distance and give her the toppings as well? I’m sure she’d be happy with a bowl of ice cream itself.
Or maybe she was full and not really interested in any dessert. And the rationalizations can go on and on…maybe to the point where he doesn’t even get his wife some ice cream. To love your neighbor as yourself, is to do for your neighbor what you would do for yourself. As Scott said, “we may not love ourselves a ton in the modern sense, but we don’t have much trouble taking care of ourselves, often to the exclusion of our neighbor.”
Who is my Neighbor? I thought I would close with a word about “my neighbor” in the text. For the Jews of that time, one’s neighbor was another Jew. But Jesus turns that formula upside-down in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Now, our neighbor is everyone whom we come into contact with who is in need. It’s a significant call, and requires diligent discernment to be lived out, but it is ours to uphold as those who have received the gift of eternal life.
- Jesus is a king teaching about the new kingdom that he is initiating. How is that kingdom different from the kingdom of the Pharisees and Sadducees?
- “Torah,” what we call “the Law,” literally means “instruction.” How does seeing the Law as meant for teaching change the way you think about “the Law”?
- Saying the “Shema” is a central part of Jewish worship and Jesus would have regularly said it as part of his worship from childhood on. Why is this prayer so important? Do you do pray anything like it in your own worship? What might such a prayer look like for Christians?
- If we are not under law, but under grace, what role do the greatest commandments play in our lives as Christians?
- Jewish people in the first century found it hard to think of Samaritans and gentiles as their neighbors. Who do you struggle with seeing as your neighbor?
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.
—Augustine of Hippo, “Homily on 1 John 4:1-12,” Homilies on the First Epistle of John
I heard a story about a little boy who wanted to give God an offering but had nothing to give. He sat on the floor, watching people pass by and place their offerings in large wicker baskets. How he longed to give a little something to the Savior he so dearly loved. He walked to the front of the church, grabbed the rim of the basket and hoisted himself inside. When the deacons went to retrieve the boy, one scolded him, saying, ‘This is not a play area!’ Embarrassed and bewildered, the little boy responded, ‘I didn’t have anything to give the Lord, so I was giving him myself’.
Adapted from Just Passion: A Six-Week Lenten Journey by Mark E. Strong Copyright (c) 2022 by Mark E. Strong. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com