Which is the Greatest Commandment?: Jesus’ unique answer

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching, called La Petite Tombe; Etching, engraving, and drypoint; 1657.

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

“Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” This was a common question in Jesus’ day, as well as before and after. It was understood as one of the most important questions to be answered and would tell all who were listening where Jesus stood on what mattered most.

Many answers to this question were given over the history of rabbinical interpretation, seeing summaries of God’s law in:

  • Psalm 15, which begins “Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain?”
  • Isaiah 33:15-16 – which outlines six characteristics of the life lived well
  • Micah 6:8, which speaks of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God
  • Isaiah 56:1, which calls people to “Maintain justice and do what is right”
  • Amos 5:4, “Seek me and live”
  • Habakkuk 2:4, “the righteous person will live by his faithfulness,” or “by faith”

Jesus’ response is interesting for many reasons. First, unlike any other proposed response listed above, Jesus draws His answer directly from the Torah, the literal law of Moses, and not elsewhere. Second, Jesus summarizes both tables of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, which speak of responsibility to God and responsibility to neighbor. Third, Jesus makes love the central active force of response to God, and not just legal obligation or certain activities. Fourth, Jesus’ answer is apparently unique. We do not have any record of other rabbis or teachers before Jesus’ time bringing these two commandments together. It may exist, but we do not have any record of it.

Jesus’ teaching is full of wisdom and insight. It’s hard not to long for more of what He says. As Paul the Apostle tells us, in Jesus “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).