The Greatest Commandment
At different times, the Jewish establishment confronted Jesus and disputed what he taught.
The Pharisees were, of course, 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. By the way, 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 group of Pharisees pose a ‘test question’ to Jesus, who is known for his independent interpretations. Which, they ask, is the greatest commandment?
In reply, Jesus refers to two texts of the Law, both of which would have been known to his challengers. The text, “You shall love the Lord” comes from the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6. It’s 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 his reply doesn’t come from the quoting, but in the juxtaposing of these two texts, so that love of your neighbour gets equal weight as love of God. In traditional Judaism both these commandments were acknowledged, but both were distinct. Jesus joins them together and gives them the same value.
“On these two commandments,” he says, “depend the Law and the Prophets” – that is, the entire revelation of the Old Testament lies in understanding these two commandments as one great command.
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