Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
With the repulse of the second assault team comprised of the Sadducees, the third wave assault team advances, this time comprised of Pharisees. Unlike the first two waves of attack, this one included an “expert” in the law; they were bringing in one of their “big guns” at this point. It’s interesting to note a slight variation in Matthew’s account in relation to that of Mark 12:28 ff., Mark portrays the third wave as asking a genuine question, while Matthew, the eyewitness, indicates that the question was a test.
Yet in just reading the text, it seems like a fair question; where is the test? Here’s the “behind the scenes story”, as revealed in ancient rabbinic writings:
The Pharisees, sticklers about the law, identified 613 laws of Moses, 365 of which were negative commands, and 248 of which were positive. Of the 613, they differentiated between those they considered “light” and those they considered to be “heavy”, meaning that some of them were a bigger deal than others. However, just because one of these commands was “light” did not mean that it could be neglected, for as they wrote, “Be as heedful of a lighter precept as of a weighty one, for thou knowest not the recompense of reward of each precept” (m. Abot 2:1; Str-B 1:904-5).Since the whole idea of which commandment was greatest was commonly discussed and debated in Pharisaic circles, their trap was that Jesus, and notice they called Him “teacher” (Rabbi) when they asked, might give an answer that implied that one or more of the commands could be neglected, and in doing so could be charged with a violation of Torah that would discredit Him with the people. Back to our story…
Jesus not only avoided their trap, but He rejected their entire (unspoken) premise in mentioning the two love commandments; love God, love your neighbor. In fact, He stated these as the backdrop for His entire approach to the Law, for the Law must not be understood as simply a list of do’s and don’ts, ordinances and violations, but rather in relational terms, a concept that was as foreign to the Pharisees as it was appealing to the crowds. Sadly, it is foreign to a lot of Christians as well.
The third wave assault team was stopped in its tracks.
When we get together again next time, Jesus counter attacks; you won’t want to miss this one!