Love’s Demand: testing

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.”

Jesus Being Tested. The test goes to the heart of the Mosaic law, and as such, it is appropriately raised by a Pharisaic lawyer. It would not be an unfamiliar question, since rabbis did discuss which of the commandments were “heavy” and which “light,” and sometimes tried to summarize the main thrust of the Mosaic law in terms of a key OT text. Since the five books of Moses (Pentateuch) contained, by rabbinic calculation, 613 commandments, some means of assessing their relative importance would be widely valued. But to provide this must involve choosing one legal principle over others, and this carried the risk that other teachers, who might have made a different choice, could accuse their colleague of belittling the importance of some other equally scriptural principle. Any answer must risk pleasing some at the expense of alienating others, and therein perhaps is the element of “test” from an unsympathetic dialogue partner, particularly in view of the suspicion already noted in 5:17 that Jesus had come to “abolish” the law. If he differed radically from mainstream Jewish orthodoxy, this question ought to reveal it. (R.T. France, 2007: 842)

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.

Jesus’ Choice. Jesus’ choice of Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18 is notable for two reasons. In the first place, by focusing on “love” rather than on more tangible regulations to be obeyed, it raises the discussion above merely judging between competing rules, and gives the priority to a principle which has potential application to virtually every aspect of religious and communal life. When Jesus declares that “the whole law and the prophets” depend on this principle, he is repeating the point he made in 7:12, “this is the law and the prophets.” The ethical principle he there laid down did not use the word “love,” but that is what it was all about. The priority of love in the life of a disciple will be a frequently repeated NT principle, and one which it would be very hard to object to.

In the second place, by bringing these two texts together Jesus asserts that the one principle of love applies equally to the two main aspects of religious duty, one’s attitude to God and one’s attitude to other people. It is these two foci which provide the framework of the 10 Commandments, with its two “tables” covering these two aspects in turn. If the 10 Commandments are a sort of embodiment of the law, these two quotations in turn sum up the 10 Commandments.

As France (2007:846) points out, even though the love of God as expressed in Deut 6:5 rightly takes first place, Jesus goes beyond the scope of the original question to assert that “a second” must be placed alongside it. It is “like” Deut 6:5 not only in that it is equally important, but also in the formal sense that it uses the same verbal form, “you are to love,” and more fundamentally in that it equally insists that one’s religious duty is focused outside oneself. It might be possible to think even of love for God as a self-centered spiritual experience, but love for one’s neighbor is inescapably practical and altruistic.

Is Jesus the first Jewish teacher to bring the two texts together in this paradigmatic way? The great Jewish teacher Hillel summarized the law in a way that is much like the so-called golden rule of Jesus: “What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary. Go and learn.” And there is certainly evidence that others had combined love for God and for neighbor in a summary of religious duty in non-Biblical, Jewish writings such as Jubilees, The Testament of Daniel, the Testament of Isaiah, Philo, and the Testament of Abraham. But as far as canonical, biblical sources, there is no parallel to Jesus’ use of this double quotation to make the point. (France, 2007:843)


  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994)
  • 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)

Scripture: The New American Bible available on-line at

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