It was generally agreed by rabbis in Our Lord’s time that the Law of Moses, contained in the first five books of the Bible, contained 613 commandments in all. There was agreement also that 248 of these were positive commandments (‘thou shalt’) corresponding to the number of parts of the human body and 365 were negative commands (‘thou shalt not’) corresponding to the number of days in the year. For these rabbis, therefore, this Law or Code of Life, God given, was for the entirety of their human lives and for each day of the year.
For some rabbis, all 613 of the commandments were equal, and they would not rank them in importance. Others disagreed and frequently sought to decide which of them is the greatest or most important. This was a much debated topic at the time and in our Gospel today we find this question directed to Jesus.
In the past great religious leaders had given their answer. The prophet Micah said there were three laws – to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with God. The prophet Habukkah said there was only one commandment – faith in God. King David suggested there were 11, the Prophet Isaiah 6, the Prophet Micah 3 and the Prophet Amos only one.
A teacher famous in the time of Christ, Rabbi Hillel, when asked to recite the whole of the Law while standing on one foot replied: ‘what you hate for yourself do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Law; the rest is commentary’.
Jesus answered this question by highlighting as the single greatest commandment what is not, in fact, a commandment at all but, rather, what is the ‘soul’ or lies at the heart of all the commandments i.e. the love of God. In doing this he gives a revolutionary answer to the question. He does not single out any of the 613 commandments of the Law as being the greatest or most important. Instead, he picks out a passage of Scripture, the Jewish prayer recited daily in the morning and evening and known as the Shema. It’s taken from the Book of Deuteronomy:
Listen, Israel, you must love the Lord your God with all your heart …
Jesus says that this, the wholehearted love of God, inspires all the commandments. He makes the love of God itself a commandment and declares this to be the greatest. Up to then, for the pious Jew, you loved God by keeping all the commandments: keeping the commandments was the means to loving God. Now, Jesus teaches, the love of God is also possible without having to use the means of the commandments.
But Jesus does not leave it there. He adds to the love of God another piece of Scripture: ‘you must love your neighbour as yourself’. He thus makes the love of God and love of neighbour equal in weight and importance. He even goes on to say that the whole of Jewish Revelation – the Law of Moses and the teaching of the Prophets (both of which comprised the Jewish Bible) – ‘hang’ upon these two commandments. But they are not two commandments – they are one. The love of God is the love of one’s neighbour.
Traditionally, ‘neighbour’ was understood to be limited to family and, at most, a fellow Israelite. And here, too, Jesus radically breaks new ground, expanding the concept of neighbour – as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan – to include anyone of any race or nationality who is in need. And, radically, it must include our enemies as well.
If you were asked to sum up all you truly believe into one short statement, and do it standing on one foot, what would it be? If you were to give your child or grand-child a simple code to live by, what might it be? And would it have any relationship with what Jesus teaches us today?
Holy Name, Jesmond
25 October 2020