“And one of the scribes approached, hearing them disputing, and seeing that he replied well to them, put a question to him: “which commandment is first in the whole?”
Matthew and Mark both include this dialogue between Jesus and the Scribe/teacher of the Law with very few variations. Luke relates a similar account, but the context and the question were entirely different. In Luke 10:27, Jesus is being asked what one must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response is to give the same answer that he does in this passage, but also to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate who one’s neighbor happens to be. In addition, Luke then records the event with Jesus at Mary and Martha’s house to help illustrate (through Mary’s actions) what it looks like when you love the Lord God with all of your heart, strength, and mind.
In this context, we find Jesus during his last week of earthly ministry, often referred to as Jesus’ Passion Week. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem during this time and has been publicly teaching and facing the challenges of the Jewish authorities. In terms of the immediate context, this dialogue most likely takes place that Tuesday, two days before his arrest, and he is facing a string of legal and philosophical questions that are designed to trap Jesus into siding with one religious party or another—a trap that Jesus refuses to fall into. Hence, unlike the account in Luke, there is no genuine interchange of ideas nor does Jesus tell any parables to illustrate his point; he is being challenged and the statements that come out of the mouth of our Lord are made with emphasis and with clarity.
Earlier this day, the Sadducees had sent a group to question Jesus’ authority to preach in the temple and to clear it of those who were selling in the courtyard. After the Sadducees leave the Pharisees step in only to be followed by the Sadducees once again. Historically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were at odds with one another. The Sadducees were the remnant of the elite priestly ruling class that went back to the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had begun in Judea roughly 170 years earlier. When Judah Maccabees and his brothers overthrew the Seleucids, who controlled the area at the time, his brother Simon would end up ruling over the then free Jewish state (Judah had died). Simon combined the office of King with that of the High Priest, making the priestly office one of privilege and reputation and not one of Levitical service. These “Royal Priests” would become known as the Sadducees. During this era, two reform groups emerged: the Pharisees and the Essines. The Essines were a radical group that withdrew from the cities into what were essentially fortified monasteries. They studied and trained to become the army of the Messiah when he would come. The Pharisees were a less radical group, but one that pushed personal piety and who challenged the hypocrisy of the ruling order. Sadly, by Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had reduced themselves into a legalistic view of what it meant to be a believer and had become very hypocritical themselves, obeying the law (as they nuanced it) but missing entirely the purpose behind the law. With this history in mind, it is easy to see not only the tension between the two classes (Pharisees and Sadducees), but also the way each group was looking to try and get Jesus to take sides so that they could discredit him.
Thus a scribe approaches Jesus and puts him to the test—which commandment would Jesus say was first amongst the whole of the law, or, as we usually put it into language today, which is the greatest commandment? Our idiomatic English translation does us a little bit of an injustice, though, given our mindset. When someone poses the question to us of which commandment or which law is the greatest, we think back, and in our minds, treat the commandments of God as separate commands that can be isolated from one another. As westerners, we are accustomed to compartmentalizing everything, and while on some level this is useful for acquiring and applying knowledge, it also creates a perception that the commandments of God are not intimately interrelated—or more specifically, are a unified whole. One of the great points that James makes is that if you break one of the commands in the Ten Commandments, you are guilty of breaking the whole law because the whole law is one (James 2:10). It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus answers this question by summing up the spirit of the law in two categories rather than elevating one aspect of the whole. Which is first in the whole, Jesus is asked? “Love God” is his answer. Which is second? “Love man.”
While many of us who have grown up in the Protestant traditions are accustomed to this kind of language, essentially dividing the Law of God (the 10 Commandments) into two sections, or two tables, one being our obligations toward God and the second being our obligations toward man, we must not assume that such is the same way the ancient minds approached the Law. In fact, there were and continue to be many schools of thought amongst Jewish and Christian thinkers as to how the Decalogue should be divided up. Some have suggested that there are five and five, drawing thematic parallels between the first and the sixth, the second and the seventh, and so forth. For example, the line of thinking is that the first commandment (no other gods) is connected with the sixth (not kill) because when you take the life of another you put yourself into God’s place, essentially making yourself to be a god and breaking the first commandment as well as the sixth. Though Jesus does not divide up the law in this way, it does help illustrate the inter-connectedness and unity of the Ten Commandments of God.
In Jesus’ day, gematria had become a popular way of looking at the Law. Gematria is a means by which the numerical value of words or phrases was calculated (remembering that letters in ancient times represented the numerical system, so “a” would be equal to 1 and “b” would be equal to 2, etc…). Then, the laws which represented the highest numerical value was considered to be most important. Another way that was popular was to look at the penalty that was connected to disobeying the law. The harsher the judgment against the sin, the more important that rule was considered to be. This concept was later picked up by the Roman Catholic church and provided some of the foundation for their division of mortal and venal sins along with isolated passages like 1 John 5:16-17 and Hebrews 10:26). By Jesus’ day, the rabbis had extended this debate outside of the Ten Commandments to reflect the whole council of God’s command. They had identified (in what we refer to as the Old Testament scriptures) 613 commandments of God (248 positive commands and 365 negative commands). Others weighted commands more heavily depending on how far back in the scriptures that they were recorded as having been given, thus emphasizing the Sabbath command or the Circumcision. Yet, once everything was said and done, they missed the purpose of the law—to demonstrate to us the holiness of God and to make us painfully aware that based on human efforts alone, we cannot come close to that holiness—or, in other words, to drive us to our knees in the midst of our sins and make us realize how desperately we need a redeemer. The Law was not designed to be parsed and made into a checklist; it was meant to drive us to Christ!
With this now before us, we have a far better picture of what the religious authorities were trying to do with Jesus. They were trying to put him into a box or a category, and then once defined by men’s terms, they could give him a label. Once labeled, they could have worked to discredit him in the people’s eyes. This scribe is essentially seeing where Jesus is going to fall in this matter, but our Lord does not allow himself to be put into a box. Our Lord never allows himself to be put into a box, but oh, how we so often try. We want to define God on our terms and according to our own understanding of how we believe God should think and behave, but God refuses to be dealt with on human terms. Beloved, how we must always endeavor to submit ourselves to God’s terms. Let God define our theology and our ideas according to his word, do not try to make God work to support your pet preference. This way of thinking and living is a harder road to travel, but it is the only road that honors God with your heart, mind, and whole life.