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The First Commandment

  • International
  • November 4, 2012
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At different times, the Jewish establishment confronted Jesus and disputed with him regarding what he taught.

The Pharisees were the ‘good people’ of Jesus’s day -- observant of the Law, righteous, keen that even ordinary folk show respect for the various commandments and precepts. (There were 248 positive precepts, and 365 prohibitions, making a total of 613 distinct commandments in the Law!) Most Pharisees publicized their virtue and made a great show of external observances.

In the episode mentioned here, a doctor of the Law poses a ‘test question’ to Jesus, who is known for his independent interpretations. Which, he asks, is the first commandment, the greatest in order of priority?

In reply, Jesus refers to two texts of the Law, both of which would have been known to his interlocutor. The text, “You shall love the Lord…” comes from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6 is part of the Jewish profession of faith – the Shema.

The second text is from Leviticus, chapter 19. “You shall love your neighbour…”

The novelty of Jesus’s reply doesn’t consist in the quoting, but in the juxtaposing of these two texts, so that the love of neighbour gets equal weightage as the love of God. In tradit-ional Judaism both these commandments were acknowledged, but both were distinct. Jesus joins them together and gives them equal weight, so that the good works done on behalf of one’s neighbour have the same value as acts of the love of God. The entire revelation of the Old Testament lies in understanding these two commandments as one great command.

The lawyer who had posed the question accepts Jesus’s answer and confirms it. Jesus in turn compliments him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
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