23 October 2011

"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." This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself."'" (v. 37-39)


Today's passage closes a section of the Gospel (beginning atMatthew 21:23) in which the Pharisees and Sadducees quiz Jesus on his interpretation of the Hebrew Law. They know that many people are attracted to Jesus as a teacher. At the same time, they are wary that he might disrupt the religious authority they have in the community and the temple in Jerusalem. They are keen to catch him in some error in order to discredit him.

The Pharisees are an ultra-religious sect within the Hebrew community. They are often seen as the villains in the Gospels, or as bad examples of an overly legalistic faith. However, they follow the law in precise detail as a way of showing their obedience and love to God. They are not just concerned that Jesus might take their power, but that he may teach disrespect for God. The Sadducees are a rival group comprising upper levels of intellectual and religious society, including many roles in the temple. The two groups are often at odds with each other in the Gospel stories and historical accounts, but unite in their fear of Jesus' influence.

At every step, as they question him, Jesus answered truthfully, but avoided their traps. In today's passage he turns the tables and goes on the offensive. He quizzes them about how the Messiah can call David "Lord" (v. 43), if he was inferior in status to him as his son. Christian readers would know that Jesus the Messiah was of David's royal family but also the Son of God, but the Pharisees have no answer.

Leviticus 19:18 ("you shall love your neighbour as yourself") is quoted three times in Matthew's Gospel, more than any other Old Testament text. It appears here in verse 39 as well as at Matthew 19:19 and in part 5:43.

Today's passage does not specify how the relationship between loving God and loving neighbour should work, but the commandments are equal partners. One does not make sense without the other, as Jesus tells it.

To Ponder

Does "love your neighbour" mean that Christians must like everyone? Why?

Should some neighbours have priority over others, or do all have an equal claim on our love? What is your thinking behind this?

What does "love your neighbour" mean in practical terms, especially in light of the August riots in English cities?

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Jennifer Smith

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