I don’t imagine Jesus taking more than a moment’s reflection before answering. After all, His nature is love. Encouraging us to love our Maker is a fitting reply to the Pharisees’ question from the Holy Son.
Jesus has given a full answer. Even so, He goes on to give us a little extra, like a virtuoso violinist indulging us with an encore. God, after all, is in the habit of allowing us more than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Christ reveals not only the greatest of commandments but also the runner-up: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (v. 39b).
Interestingly, the second commandment was part of a law calling Israel, as Jesus does in the Lord’s Prayer, to forgive all those who sin against us: ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Leviticus 19:18).
Leaving no doubt as to how crucial this pair of instructions are within the Hebrew religion; Our Lord offers a striking expression: ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets’ (v. 40). This notion makes all sorts of images pop into my head. I wonder how the original audience received it…
Some in the rabble, perhaps, imagined a tapestry (the law and the prophets) dangling on two pegs (the great commandments). Or a hippo-like entity, grey as Moses’ tablets and Isaiah’s beard, swinging on two gymnastic rings like a seasoned Olympian. Who knows?
Another way Christ reaches further than the question demands is when He mentions the prophets, rather than exclusively focusing on the law. The Pharisees are so fixated on all things legal they completely forget about Ezekiel and Co. That’s understandable, I suppose; it’s easy to dwell on our favorite scriptures instead of engaging the Bible in the round.
However, we may fail to see the connections between them, the law and the prophets lean on the same core idea: love of God and love of neighbor. They speak with one powerful voice on how God’s faithful should walk through life.
Writing in his 1994 autobiographical epic, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela recalls of one early mentor, ‘He was a patient and generous teacher, and sought to impart not only the details of the law but the philosophy behind it’ (p. 84).
Although Mandela was talking about South African law, cruel as it was in his youth, we see Jesus too commending a philosophical – rather than systematic – school of expounding the Hebrew law, similar to the method which a certain South African solicitor emulated.
Over the centuries, the great commandment has become embedded as a refrain in Christian worship. At an Anglican Eucharist, a priest recites Matthew 22:37-40. Recalling our purpose in this life – to love our Creator and all His creatures – the faithful say, “Lord have mercy on us, and write these Your laws in our hearts.”
When we go to Eucharist and hear the great commandment, we can be grateful that Our Lord resisted any temptation to pull a speedy getaway from the Pharisees – like I will, when battalions of politicians come a-knocking with roughly the same genuineness behind every slogan as is to be found in a professional golfer’s chest hair.
Our Lord saw the Pharisees on the prowl and stuck around. We have, as a result, a timeless meditation on the meaning of life, a truly great commandment. And so, Jesus, by tackling an immense question, confronting it rather than fleeing it, expresses a philosophy for finding our purpose: to love our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.