Reading through the Bible together
Matthew 22 has several stories continuing the theme of Jesus being challenged by the religious leaders. I shall focus on verses 34-40. As an ethicist, this story of the lawyer asking Jesus to identify the “greatest commandment in the law” is highly interesting. Why ask such a question?
When the lawyer says “law,” he almost certainly meant the Torah, the five books of Moses. By the time of Christ, the Rabbis had long ago counted the commands in the Torah and had found 613 of them (including the 10 commandments). Keeping these 613 laws had become the focal point to regain God’s blessing to avoid another captivity like they had in Babylon. This pressure question, though, led to a problem.
If one was not a professional lawyer (i.e. Bible scholar), how realistic is it for an untrained “common man” to remember all 613 commands? Most people would feel intimidated to keep track of 600-plus rules. Even with a written checklist, the average person is bound to forget a few. Thus, the logical question would be, which commandment, or commandments, are the greatest, the most critical and important, that a person should be careful not to forget? The lawyers were apparently debating this problem among themselves. The question posed to Jesus suggests that in order to help the people resolve this question the lawyers were grading the commands as some being more expendable and others as non-expendable. Thus, if one loses track of all 613, it would be better to forget one of the least commands, not one of the greatest.
Jesus responds with a contrasting view of God’s commandments that is holistic and indivisible. There are, in fact, only two core ideas in all these commandments: Love God first and foremost, and love your neighbor. Everything else derives from these two. Thus the common man does not need to recall 613 commandments. He only needs two and with sanctified thinking, he can figure out the various applications.
It is easy to seek ways of professing our love for God’s commandments while quietly arranging them into order of importance that allows us to excuse ourselves from responsibility in certain situations. May we discover the power of the two commandments instead of seeking exceptions to duty or inventing new, unnecessary layers of regulations for ourselves and others.
Stephen Bauer, Ph.D.
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Southern Adventist University