The whole law and the prophets

December 14, 2012

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Matthew 22:34-40.

When the Pharisees heard that he 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.”

This is a short version of Mark’s story. Mark had a scribe pose the question who was impressed with Jesus’ response to the Sadducees about the resurrection. Jesus, in turn, told the scribe that he was not far from the kingdom of God when he saw that the scribe understood. A scribe was a scholar of the law, but this has been put in brackets because Biblical scholars believe it was added to a later text by a copyist according to the New American Bible. Also, Mark added that you shall God “with all your strength,” Remember, though, that Matthew had a particular dislike of the Pharisees whom had hounded the Jewish Christians from the synagogues.

The Shema is the centerpiece of Jewish morning and evening prayer services. It is the first two words of the Torah — Hear, O Israel. The prayer that follows is drawn from Deuteronomy commanding that one shall love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might. However, the scribes and Pharisees were obsessed with particularities, so it was natural for them to order the commandments from greatest to least greatest. The first, of course, is that one shall have no other gods beside Yahweh. So, this seems a peculiar test to me.

I think Mark got it right and he was writing closest in time to when Jesus was on earth. I think that Matthew let his animosity get in the of the truth. It makes much more sense that the scribe, drawn to Jesus by his wisdom and knowledge of the scriptures, would want to know more. I think this is an honest question in search of greater insight. The important point, of course, is that it enabled Jesus to teach that loving one another is second but just as important as the first. It is how we put our love of God into action, how we bring about the kingdom of God. As Barclay writes, “[T]o God we must give a total love, a love which dominates our emotions, a love which directs our thoughts, and a love which is the dynamic of our actions….Our love of God must issue in love for men….Man is made in the image of God. It is for this reason that man is lovable….Take away the love of God and we can become angry at man the unteachable; we can become pessimistic about man the unimprovable; we can become callous to man the machine-minder. The love of man is firmly grounded in the love of God. To be truly religious is to love God and to love the men whom God made in his own image; and to love God and man, not with a nebulous sentimentality, but with that total commitment which issues in devotion to God and practical service of men.”

As Jesus said, “the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” That pretty well sums up his whole teaching in the gospels. Do those two things and everything else will fall into place. Do those two things consistently and we will enter the kingdom of God. We make that o so hard, though.




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