The Greatest Commandment

May 24, 2016

As an anchor in my understanding of what God is asking of me, I turn often to the Bible passage often known as The Greatest Commandment. It’s told in three of the Gospels. Here’s the version from Matthew (22:34-40):

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 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, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

There are also versions of this same story in Mark (12:28-34) and in Luke (10:25-28). For me, this story contains the distilled essence of Jesus’s teaching. Nevertheless, the more I look at the three versions, the more I am struck by the differences–and one element in common.

What leads up to the encounter? In Matthew, a group of Sadducees had been talking with Jesus, testing him, no doubt trying to trip him up. Then the Pharisees take up the questioning. Referring to the Mosaic requirement that a man marry his brother’s widow, they ask Jesus with which brother will the woman be reunited after the resurrection. In answering, Jesus scolds them telling them you “know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” (Ouch.) Nearly the exact same story appears before the Greatest Commandment account in Mark. In the Luke version, there is no adversity. Jesus has been talking with the 70 he has appointed to “go on ahead of him, two by two.” He then has a private word with his disciples, telling them “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.”

Who asks the question? In Matthew, it is a Pharisee who asks the question, and he is identified as a lawyer. In the Mark version, it is a scribe who asks and it is not clear that this scribe is a Pharisee (or a Sadducee); he is simply identified as one who heard Jesus disputing with others. In Luke, the questioner is identified as a lawyer. Presumably he must be one of the 70 since there were no lawyers among the disciples. The Sadducees and Pharisees are nowhere about.

Who answers the question? In Matthew the question is asked, and Jesus answers straightaway. In Mark, the scribe asks and Jesus answers, and the scribe responds that Jesus is right. After being praised, Jesus tells the man that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” In Luke the answering and the praising is the other way around. Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer asking him “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” After the man answers, Jesus praises him, saying, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Does it matter who asks the question and who answers it? Perhaps not. Does it matter whether Jesus told his interlocutor that he was “right” or that he was “not far from the kingdom of God?” Perhaps not, even if those don’t mean the same thing. Perhaps these are insignificant details in tellings of basically the same decisive story. Jesus is drawn into efforts by the Jewish authorities to show him up, and instead he deepens their understanding. Jesus adroitly sidesteps rank ordering the Ten Commandments by gathering their essential guidance into just two. I find the differences in what happens next more interesting.

What happens next? In Matthew, Jesus continues disputing with the Pharisees by posing a question to them: “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” In Mark, Jesus raises the same matter but asks a question: “How can the scribes say that Christ is the son of David?” He asks it while teaching in the Temple; apparently he has turned away from disputing with the Pharisees. Does that matter? Perhaps not.

In Luke, however, the dialog with the lawyer simply continues. Having said that one should love your neighbor as yourself, and having been told he was right, the lawyer asks Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” In response, Jesus tells a story, one of the most memorable and oft-discussed stories of the Gospels, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 29-37). That story doesn’t appear in Matthew or Mark. I can’t help wondering why not. Surely anyone who had witnessed the encounter as described in Luke would have found that exchange fascinating and memorable. Any retelling would have included that story. So why didn’t Matthew or Mark include the parable of the Good Samaritan along with the Greatest Commandment? I don’t know. Perhaps the author of Luke drew that story from some other occasion and grafted it on to the encounter we know as the Greatest Commandment.

Who dares question Jesus? One other detail fascinates me about the Greatest Commandment accounts. Mark adds to his account, right after Jesus tells the scribe he was right, that “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Matthew adds roughly the same sentence but puts it after the ensuing discussion with the Pharisees about who is the Christ. “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.” And Luke? He does include this sentence, but not until ten chapters later (Luke 20: 27-40) when he tells the story that in Matthew immediately precedes the Greatest Commandment story, the exchange with the Sadducees about which brother will wind up with the wife after resurrection. In Luke’s account, Jesus does not rebuke them; rather one of them says, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” And Luke adds, “For they no longer dared to ask him any questions.”

We generally praise teachers for inviting and encouraging questions, and criticize teachers who shut down questions. That’s why this detail common to the three accounts—even if differently placed—fascinates me. Perhaps the gospel writers are trying to communicate that Jesus’s understanding was far beyond that of any mere human. Perhaps. But if that is so, what leads some of us to be so certain about the precise meaning of the details of Jesus’s teachings?


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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