We’re going to focus on an incident in the Gospel in which a scribe asked Jesus what the greatest commandment of the Law was. Before we reflect on their conversation it would be helpful to understand who the scribes were.
The scribes were a group within orthodox Judaism that devoted their lives to the study of the Law. They were highly respected by the people because of their encyclopedic learning. They meticulously transcribed the books of the bible, and wrote commentaries on them that were equally meticulous. They also made it part of their life’s work to follow each and every prescription of the Law. In this, the scribes were like their counter-parts, the Pharisees.
Another point to remember is that during Jesus’ time there were two religious dynamics in play regarding the interpretation of the Law. The scribes took the precepts of the Law and The Pastor’s Reflections spun out thousands of corollaries to the original law to make sure that every angle of the law had been articulated. The other dynamic in play at the time was the appreciation of the dramatically simpler approach of the mystics. For instance, Simon the Righteous put the entire law into a short phrase from the book of Tobit (4:19): “Do to no one what you yourself dislike.”
Jesus was in the tradition of the mystics. When he was asked by the scribe which was the first of all the commandments, Jesus simply pointed to a commandment from the book of Deuteronomy. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. (Deuteronomy 6:5)” His answer was clear and concise. But he linked it to a second commandment. He took it from the book of Leviticus. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)” 2
The scribe was happy to agree with Jesus, and added that these two commandments were “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In other words, taking those two commandments to heart, and living them, was more powerful than any act of worship.
Jesus’ face must have broken out into a broad smile when he heard the scribe’s response. This scholar of the Law was able to step out of the maze of man-made laws and take to heart the two commandments that were truly life-giving. His smile accompanied a blessing. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
I would like to direct you to Matthew’s Gospel to get more insight into today’s teaching. In chapter 5 Matthew depicts Jesus as the NEW Moses presenting NEW commandments. Unlike the commandments of Moses that began with the phrase, “You shall not…” Jesus presents a series of eight joyful exclamations, each beginning with the phrase, “How happy are…!” We’ve come to call these new commandments the Beatitudes.
Rather than telling us what we must not do, Jesus is teaching us what we must be to be rich in grace and joy. How happy are…the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those hungry for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for the sake of righteousness, those insulted because of their association with him.
He reminds us that the “new” commandments he’s presenting aren’t abolishing the old Law. Rather, the old Law has taken a great leap – it has been fulfilled in him. He invites everyone to enjoy the new law. “Come to me all you who labor and are burdened (by the old Law), and I (the new law) will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you (not the yoke of the old Law), and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden light. (Matthew 11:28-30)”
To conclude his teaching Jesus points his finger at each one of us as he adds a short commentary to the Beatitudes. “You are the salt of the earth! You are the light of the world!”
We can also see a progression in Jesus’ teaching about the commandments. On one occasion he pointed to the 10 commandments, the orthodox set of rules. In today’s passage, he referred to a commandment from Deuteronomy, and a second from Leviticus, the mystic approach. However, the night before he died he gave us one final commandment: “I give you a new commandment, love one another as I have loved you. (John15:12)” At the Last Supper he truly presented himself as the fulfillment of the law. With this commandment Jesus declared sacrificial love as the commandment of the new law. If we choose to follow him, if we’re to be salt for the earth and light for the world he’s asking us to walk the path of sacrificial love, that he himself modeled for us.
Jesus called us to live for others. He told us, “There is no greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friend. (John 15:13)” He showed us this sacrificial love for us on the cross. But he also gave us an example of how to live that life of love every day by freely giving ourselves in service to our neighbor. Day by day we’re asked to pour out our lives in loving service – to love sacrificially.