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Matthew 22:34-46

Lesson Focus

Loving God and loving neighbor are inseparable. We can love God and our neighbor because Jesus is the Messiah.

Catch up on the Story

This passage is the third of three questions that the religious leaders of Israel put to Jesus. The first question was about paying taxes to Caesar; the second was about the future resurrection. This final question, along with the previous two, are all attempts by the religious leaders to trap Jesus into saying something that will either get him in trouble with the political authorities or cause him to lose credibility with the people. These questions have come from both ends of the religious establishment. The Pharisees, who tended to lean more toward the revolutionary end and the Sadducees/Herodians, who favored a more pro-Roman stance, questioned Jesus. This final question comes from the Pharisees, who are delighted that Jesus has confounded the Sadducees in the previous section.

The Text

The text begins with Matthew noting that the Pharisees approach Jesus to test or trap him because they say that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees. Literally, Jesus had “muzzled” the Sadducees with his response to the previous question. We will hear no more from the Sadducees in terms of questions. In fact, at the end of this chapter, the Pharisees will no longer attempt to trap Jesus in his teaching either.

One of the experts in the law approaches Jesus and asks him a question. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” The exact way the expert in the law asks this question is important. Poia in Greek is often translated as “what kind of?” in distinction from “which.” The distinction is important. The lawyer is not seeking to know which law is the greatest but rather what class of commandments deserves to be elevated above the rest (Bruner, 411). In other words, the lawyer wants to know the most comprehensive law and, thus, the most significant commandment.

Jesus responds that what is most important is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Here, Jesus combines two commandments from two different books of the Old Testament into one over-arching command. The first part of the command came from Deuteronomy 6:5 and was a particularly important command for Israel. Devout Jews would have prayed it every morning and evening of their lives.

This command to love God is the first and greatest command. But notice that this is not just a command to love an impersonal and distant God. Rather, Jesus situates this command amid Israel’s history. The command is to love the “Lord your God.” That is the God of your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who brought you up out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched hand. It is a command to love God, who, out of his love and grace, did not destroy Israel when they rebelled at Mt. Sinai or when they refused to take possession of the Promised Land. The command to love the “Lord your God” is to respond to the great saving love that God has shown for Israel throughout the generations.

How are we to love this God who has first loved us? We are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and mind. At this point, I am not sure it helps us much to parse out different meanings for heart, soul, and mind. Jesus is trying to make the point that we are to love this God who first loved us with the entirety of our being. The Hebrew word for heart, lev, can be compared to what we would call our “center” (Kittle, Bromiley, and Friedrich, 606). Our love for God flows out from the core of who we are because God’s love for us has first transformed us. If we are honest with ourselves, this kind of total and systemic love for God is hard to achieve. Jesus will give us some help with this in a minute.

Jesus then places this command at the forefront of everything. This command to love God is the greatest and first command. Above anything else we might find in all of the law and the prophets, this command is the one that trumps everything. Jesus could stop