The Greatest Commandment

greatest-commandment2Matthew 22: 34-40  34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them (a scholar of the law) tested him by asking, 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the greatest and the first commandment. 39 The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

Context.  The gospel this week distills the teaching of Jesus into its most simple form. Jewish teachers of Jesus’ day offered the same response adding that the rest of the scriptures are but commentary on these two things. In the gospel according to Mark this same narrative records a friendly scribe making a sincere inquiry in which Jesus commends the scribe for his answer, declaring that the scribe is not far from the kingdom of God (Mk 12:28–34). But Matthew recounts it differently. Since Matthew 21 Jesus has been involved in controversy with the leading people of Jerusalem (Sadducees, Pharisees, scholars, scribes, Herodians, etc.) about the issue of authority: “When he had come into the temple area, the chief priests and the elders of the people approached him as he was teaching and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?’” (Mt 21:23). The three parables (Man who had two sons, the vintner and tenants, and the great wedding banquet of the King’s son) have been followed by three controversies (taxes to Caesar, resurrection, and now the question of the greatest commandment).

This shift from a scholastic inquiry to a controversy over authority is important for Matthew’s community which is finding its way in the world after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. With the center of praxis of Jewish life lost, there was a regrounding in the practice of faith that was beginning to take shape in the form or rabbi-led Judaism (as opposed to the priest-led practice when the Temple was still present). It is believed that the Pharisees, scribes and scholars of the law formed the tone and sense of post-70 AD Judaism. The tide of this movement will ultimately lead to an expulsion from synagogue of all Jews who hold Jesus to be the Messiah. This will be the final break in ranks between Judaism and early Christianity.

In this final controversy, it is perhaps why a professional theologian from their ranks (the only occurrence of “lawyer” (nomikos) in Matthew becomes their spokesman. His question is no longer sincere or collegial, as in Mark, but is to “test” Jesus (peirazō, as in 4:1, 3; 16:1; 19:3; 22:18; only the devil and the Pharisees are the subject of this verb in Matthew). The address, “teacher,” is insincere and stands in contrast to the believers’ address, “Lord.” Jesus has just defended the Pharisees’ point of view, as he does throughout this section (cf. 23:1–2), yet their response is to test him as did Satan. In Matthew’s understanding, this is more than a religious debate; once again, the two kingdoms confront each other.

For purposes of studying Scripture, our Sunday gospel usually continues and includes vv.41-46, where at the end of the questioning by the leaders of Jerusalem

  • Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (asked by Pharisees and Herodians:v. 17);
  • In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be?” (asked by Sadducees; v. 27);
  • “which commandment in the law is the greatest” (asked by a lawyer; v.34)

Jesus asks them a question:

41 While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus questioned them, 42 saying, “What is your opinion about the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They replied, “David’s.” 43 He said to them, “How, then, does David, inspired by the Spirit, call him ‘lord,’ saying: 44 ‘The Lord said to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I place your enemies under your feet”’? 45 If David calls him ‘lord,’ how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (Matthew 22:41–46)

There are really two parts in play: the end of the controversy questions put to Jesus and the beginning of them being put on final notice that something greater than King David and Prophets is here before them.


Jesus Being Tested. The nature of the test is not clear. The clue may be given by Matthew’s addition “in the Law.” (v.36) The rabbis had counted 613 commands (248 positive commands, corresponding to the number of parts of the body; 365 negative commands, corresponding to the days of the year). Although rabbinical teachers could also indulge in giving summaries of the Law, there was also the view that all commandments were equal, with any ranking of them being mere human presumption in evaluating the divine law, all of which was equally binding. The lawyer may be attempting to draw Jesus into this debate and get him to make some statement that could be interpreted as disparaging toward (some part of) the Law, such as declaring the “moral law” more important than the “ceremonial law.” In essence it becomes a trick question.

As Brian Stoffregen notes: “In a similar way, if we were to assume that all verses in the Bible were equal, then asking, “What’s the most important verse in the Bible?” would be a “testing” question. We could find fault in any answer that was given.”

The Old Shaping the New. In Mark as in Deut 6:4–5, the command to love God is part of the Shema, which begins with the confession of the oneness of God, the closest thing to a universal creed in Judaism. Although there was a rabbinic tradition of “summaries of the Torah,” the combination of the command to love God and love neighbor is distinctive of the synoptic Jesus. Matthew’s most dramatic change is to replace the Markan conclusion’s positive interchange between Jesus and the scribe with Jesus’ pronouncement (v. 40) that the whole of the law and the prophets “hang” from these two commandments. In the context of the Matthean narrative theology as a whole, this is more than another summary of the law. Nor is it a statement explaining that all the other commands of the law can be exegetically derived from these two commands. Rather, Jesus declares the command to love God and neighbor (on their unity as one command, see below) to be the hermeneutical key for interpreting all the divine revelation—not only the Law, but the Prophets as well.

Love Means…. What? Although the Sermon on the Mount has already included an extensive section of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples on love as fundamental to the life of discipleship (5:21–48), in this concluding encounter with his opponents Matthew gives Jesus another opportunity to summarize the core of his teaching (as 7:12). There, the teaching was to his disciples; here, it is to his opponents, in the controversy situation showing his orthodoxy as an advocate of the whole of the Law and the Prophets. Since Matthew here focuses on the argumentative aspect of the scene, he does not develop the theological issues that interest the contemporary interpreter (cf. Luke, who relocates the passage, 10:25–28): (1) the meaning of “love,” (2) the meaning of “neighbor,” and (3) the meaning of Jesus’ responding with two commands.

While Jesus quotes two OT passages (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18), it is interesting that commentators offer different opinions about the relationship between these two commandments. Here is but a sample:

  • Patte (The Gospel According to Matthew) writes: “… these two commandments remain distinct. They should not be identified with each other. Loving God should not be reduced to loving one’s neighbor! Loving God is an act of love distinct from loving one’s neighbor, and vice versa” [p. 314].
  • Boring (Matthew, New Interpreters Bible) writes: “To love God is to love one’s neighbor, and vice versa (25:31-46)” [p. 426]
  • Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries): “Truly to love God is to love the neighbor; truly to love the neighbor is to love God (cf. 1 John 4:20-21)” [p. 260].

All hold an insight. On one hand, I think that loving God means something different than just loving one’s neighbor. One can be a very kind, caring, philanthropic person without giving any thoughts or love to God. On the other hand, I don’t think that a believer can love God without loving neighbor and self, because God loves that neighbor too.

There are three basic Greek words for “love:” agapao/agape, phileo/philos, and eros. There is not always agreement among scholars about the distinction between these three choices. Boring, (Matthew The New Interpreters Bible) says that the words are synonymous — that agape is not necessarily a special word for “God-love”. He writes:

When Christians use the word love with reference to God, to the deepest human relationships, and of the stance they are to exercise toward the world, the content of this word is not to be filled in with supposed meaning of a special Greek word, but from an understanding of God’s nature made known in Christ. It is from this revelatory perspective that we come to know love as unmotivated and unmanipulated, unconditional and unlimited. Such love is not a matter of feeling, which cannot be commanded in any case, but of commitment and action. It is at the farthest pole from sentimentality and is related to the OT word for “covenant love” or “steadfast love” (hesed). [p. 425]

While there is merit to stress the nature and actions of God to give understanding to the word “love,” (i.e., it is God’s actions that give the content to agape, rather than a dictionary meaning of agape that defines God’s actions) and recognizing that the meanings of the three Greek works for “love” overlap — that is, they are partially synonymous, still there are different emphases or nuances in these three words. Given a continuum with “selflessness” on one end and “selfishness” on the other, most place agapao/agape towards the selfless end and eros towards the selfish end with phileo/philos in the middle.

Agapao/agape are words that tend to center on actions (not emotions) towards other people. Eros is a word that tends to center on emotional/sexual actions or feelings that please one’s self. Phileo/philos are words that tend to center on actions and feelings that benefit both parties, e.g., friendships. Especially as a verb, agapao refers to “loving (or caring) actions towards other people for their benefit.” It is not primarily a word to describe one’s emotions, e.g., having warm feelings towards.

For a slightly different definition, Hare, (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) writes:

In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deut. 6:5 demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. [p. 260]

Loving God then implies an attachment to God — a commitment that goes beyond personal, inward feelings. The same is implied towards the neighbor. Within the OT context of this commandment (Lv 19:17-18), neighbor referred to “kin”. (However, Lv 19:33-34) extends the love to “aliens” who reside among them.


  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994)
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000)
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007)
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989)
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991)
  • Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2000)
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009)
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005)


  • David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture: The New American Bible available on-line at

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