34When the Pharisees heard that [Jesus] had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
It is only days before Jesus’ crucifixion and death. The temple courts are stuffed with Jews from all over the known world, getting ready for their passover celebrations. One group at a time the Herodians, the Sanhedrin and the Sadducees, have each taken their turn trying to discredit or trap Jesus in the eyes of everyone. And each group in turn has beat a hasty and shamefaced retreat under the simple and unassuming questions of Jesus. With little love lost between these groups you can almost see the smile on their faces as they watch their opponents slither away in embarrassment. So it is that having watched the Sadducees turn tail and run, the Pharisees, last in line, step up to plate hoping to rub it in a little, and maybe just maybe, work Jesus into a corner.
And so the question, “Which is the greatest commandment?” Is it a trick question? Not exactly … The Sadducees only accepted those commandments written in the Torah proper. All other Pharisaic laws (the traditions of the fathers) they rejected. So who would Jesus side with? Whose case would He plead? The thing is, no matter how Jesus answers He is sure to leave out something that the Pharisees considered essential. Which specific commandment must be considered great is a question they struggled with themselves. You see the Pharisees recognized 613 commandments – 248 positive, 365 negative. The Law was something they Loved to talk about. Do you measure them by the severity of their attendant punishment? Are the Commandments regarding sacrifices supreme? What about the Sabbath laws? Don’t forget Circumcision! But Jesus doesn’t fall into verbal traps (as we have seen time and again) and He will not be used as ammunition against another either!
37And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the great and first commandment. It is an answer without preamble or rebuke. It is simple and direct. There is no mistaking the point. In quoting Dt. 6 Jesus makes it very clear that the Law begins with God. The Law is directed towards God. The Law is God’s. Three times it is stated that God will have no mere part of our self or our life. God will allow no division or subtraction. Not even the smallest corner is to be closed against God. The whole seat of our personality, the entire activity of our life, our entire sentient being itself is to cleave to Him in love.
Thus Luther’s proper explanation of every commandment begins with this the first and starts with the fear and love of God. By this commandment all the other commandments and any regulation given to the Jews through Moses must be weighed and gauged. But Jesus is not done yet:
39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” It is a summary of our Old Testament reading from Lev. 19. Go back and review it if you want to see just how comprehensive a statement He is making. And it is indeed “like” the first in that it begins with love. A love that includes every contact with our neighbor and fellow man. No single part is left out for selfish pursuits or self-serving goals.
These two commandments are the nail from which all else written in the OT hangs suspended. Take away this nail, and everything else falls in a heap. It all loses its true meaning, significance, and purpose. Thus with this answer Jesus actually charges the Pharisees with blind legalism. For many of those 613 laws they considered so very important were empty and meaningless. They were not ultimately grounded in love for God nor were they lived out in love for others. What they did they did to make themselves feel better.
But then again, we aren’t so very different are we? We blind legalists love to see God take our side against those who so obviously deserve a little more humility in their lives. We like to argue and debate the little things that one can so easily change (if we really wanted to) so we don’t have to deal with the unshakable absolutes of God’s Will. Better to talk about preferences and schedules, tradition verses doctrine, old-fashioned verses contemporary, the colour of the carpet or the state of the yard, rather than discuss whether or not we measure up to the Love the Law truly demands. And Why? Because we know when it comes to Loving God with all that we are, and loving our neighbours before ourselves we have failed and always will. We simply cannot measure up. It is hard to Love such a Law.
So why, then, would God ask His people to love Him as He does, if that kind of love could never be realized in their (our) hearts because of sin? Wouldn’t it make more sense to approach things like the Pharisees – with a large but ultimately manageable list of Laws we could in time come to Love? In answer to the obvious question just hanging there, Jesus immediately takes His discussion in a startling direction.
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 44“‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet’? 45If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?”
These two summary commandments show, like no other, the need for the Gospel. However well we may outwardly perform the deeds of the law, by nature we lack the love demanded by these two commandments, and are thus altogether guilty before God. We can be saved and restored only by the means of the Gospel. But then that’s the point isn’t it? The Law doesn’t teach us to Love God so much as it drives us to the Love that God has shown to us in Christ.
Jesus’ quote from Psalm 110 is a veritable minefield of Messianic terminology. It was (and still is) universally recognized as a Psalm speaking of the coming Messiah. Even though the reading sounds a little flat in English it is anything but, in the original. Yahweh, the Lord God Himself, working by the Holy Spirit through David calls the coming son of David, David’s Adoni. His very covenant name points to the covenant promise of the Messiah in and through whose grace Israel would, indeed, come to love the Lord their God with their whole heart, soul and mind.
For it is Jesus, and Jesus alone who loved the father above all else, loved Him with His whole heart and soul and mind. Loved Him so much that holding nothing back, He made His way to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the tomb. The Love of the Law is only seen fulfilled in the broken and bloodied body of Jesus willingly hanging upon that cursed tree. Giving every last drop of life-blood to serve the Father’s wishes. But also to save you and me! For this Jesus is also the only one who truly loved his every neighbour (you and me) even more than himself, or His own life! No wonder the Messiah must be God at the same time He is man.
Jesus points the Pharisees to the Love of the Law, so that they might truly begin to see themselves as they should, but even more, so that He might open their eyes to the Love God would show to them and all mankind in the very one they were debating with. And that is what God would have for each of you. That your eyes would be open to the Love of the Law, a Love lived out in the life death, and resurrection of your Lord. A Love lived out even now for you. A Love that both demands … and gives your all.
How can you argue with that? You can’t. What do you say to something like that? The Pharisees didn’t even try. 46And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. In the face of the true Love of the Law, they were at a loss for words. Just as we all are in the face of such overwhelming all-consuming love. What can you say but Thank You!
O God, You have commanded us to love You above all things and our neighbours as ourselves. Grant us the Spirit to think and do what is pleasing in Your sight, that our faith in You may never waver and our love for one another may not falter. AMEN.