By the time of Jesus, Jewish Law had greatly expanded from the original ten commandments. One writer says that there were 613 actual laws as well as 365 prohibitions (one for every day in the year) and 268 prescriptions (one for every bone in the body).
Obviously not all these rules and regulations were of equal weight and the rabbis constantly disputed which of them were more important than the others. So we can see where the question of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel comes from. Their desire to know which was the most important law was not just a matter of curiosity but a point of contention among the lawyers and religious figures of the day, something which was of real importance to them.
Today we might find such a question a bit abstract and not very relevant, but you have to understand that the ancient world was a very different place and their concerns were quite other than ours. They lived in a completely religious world which was dominated by the Temple and the various factions gathered around it. What to us seem obscure matters of religion were of vital importance to them.
However, the purpose of the question in today’s Gospel is not to find the answer but, as we are told, to disconcert Jesus. They want to wrong-foot him; to try to find something which they can use against him.
In this and in the previous few chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, extracts of which we have had read to us over the last few weeks, the Pharisees have been trying hard to catch Jesus out. They have put questions to him like the one last week about whether taxes can be paid to Caesar. Their purpose is to look for a chink in his armour so that they can find something to use against him.
On each occasion Jesus outsmarts them. He either gives an answer they do not expect or he responds with a parable which puts them in a bad light. By now they are a bit exasperated and are running out of things to ask him, so they pose this question about which is the greatest commandment.
Jesus gives the answer that there are two great and interrelated commandments: Love God and love your neighbour. The Pharisees perhaps seeing that they cannot get the better of him simply decide to back off.
It is interesting that, true to form, Jesus does not use the same categories as the Pharisees in their disputations about which is the greatest commandment. They ask which one commandment is the greatest and he gives them not one commandment but two. He does not place the first above the second but says that the second is like the first.
What is interesting is his follow-up statement that on these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets, in other words the whole body of Jewish teaching. From this remarkable statement we see that the Jewish religion is based not on rules and regulations, as the Pharisees would have the people believe, but on love.
This is something that they do not expect. Yes, I am certain that the Pharisees loved their wives and their children, but it is obvious that their religion is not based on love; rather their religion is based on the observance of rules and regulations. In a word their religion is mechanical. According to their way of thinking if you observe this set of rituals or that set of behaviours then you will be righteous in the eyes of God.
What Jesus proposes is something that they have completely overlooked. For all their study of the scriptures the Pharisees have failed to notice the great pillar on which their religion is based, namely love.
They have not understood God’s true nature. They do not realise that the sole motivating force of God is love. They do not realise that what God wants from us is for us to simply love him as well as our fellow human beings.
The Pharisees did not understand this simple equation. We realise that their failure to appreciate this important point is very reason why Jesus came into our world. He came to make sure that we perfectly understand just what God is like and what we need to do in order to live with him forever.
The message of Jesus, to use the beautiful phrase of St John, is that ‘God is love and those who live in love live in God and God lives in them’.
The task then of anyone who wants to be one with God is to learn to become a good lover in the very broadest sense of that term. What we ought to be striving for is to deepen our care and concern for and our appreciation of all those around us and to be constantly reaching out to God in our prayer as well as in our good works.
What we need therefore is profound passion in our lives, a deep and warm and powerful love for our God and our fellow human beings.
This word passion is very interesting because its roots are in the word suffering. When, for example, we speak of Christ’s Passion we mean his suffering on the Cross but we recognise that the motivation for his suffering is his great love for us and his concern that we should have the way to heaven opened up for us.
There is no room for a cold Christian; there is no space in the Church for a stony-hearted Christian. These concepts are complete contradictions.
What we are long for is passionate, warm and loving Christians; members of the Church who care deeply about the welfare of those around them. We want Christians whose hearts are moved by the sufferings that they see and who want to do whatever they can to help to build a better world.
When we describe someone as passionate we mean that they are excited and ardent about whatever it is that gets them going. In society at large we can see many passionate people in sport, in the arts, in politics and many other areas of life. It is hard for anyone to achieve a measure of success in a particular sphere without being passionate about what they do.
However, what we are talking about here is Christianity. And Christianity goes far beyond mundane things such as sport or politics. What we are talking about is the most important thing that exists; namely God himself. We are speaking about the greatest kind of love that there is, the love of God and flowing from this the love of our neighbour.
If we can harness a deep passion for the things of heaven in our lives then there is nothing we cannot do; no place we cannot go; no door that can ever be closed to us, least of all the door of heaven.