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."
Any commentary on this passage seems superfluous, but then again superfluity is seen in many circles today to be the métier of biblical scholars. It is certainly not something Jesus engages in, not in his treatment of the Pharisees – biblical scholars first and foremost – and not in his answer. Jesus takes their question seriously and gives a somewhat direct answer. It is a serious question, though not altogether clear as to why they ask it: they might be trying to trick Jesus, or trap him in what they suspect might be the shallowness of his learning, but it is a question which he ought to be able to answer as a pious Jew. The answer he gives, that of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5), recited daily by Jews then and now, is not a groundbreaking or shocking answer; it simply places Jesus in the mainstream of Jewish thought.
The second part of Jesus’ response, which is why earlier I called this a “somewhat direct answer,” is that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself. This answer, too, is common in Judaism, given that it is taken from Leviticus 19:18. What is indirect about Jesus’ answer is precisely that he gives two answers.
Now, it seems to me that everyone knows this feeling, no matter what we are being asked: what are your two favorite cities? Your five favorite movies? Ten favorite books? Just two, five and ten? Can we relax the rules a bit? If I mention Vancouver and Rome, how can I leave out Istanbul and Chicago? Is Jesus pushing the limits, just because he cannot decide? He was only asked to name one commandment, yet he must name two.
He does not even plead with the Pharisees, “Just one? No way, I have to mention two. I, and my father for that matter, have two favorites.” The first and greatest is to love God, but “the second is like it.” In what way is the “second like it”? Is it like it in being great? Or is it alike in reality: to love God is to love neighbor? Jesus makes no excuses for offering two commandments instead of one, and makes no apologies: however it is the case, it is. At the heart of Jesus’ understanding of life is to love God and neighbor. Like I said, commentary is superfluous. It is in the doing of it that the two commandments become one.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens