This material was first published by Redemptorist Publications and is included here with their permission.
Leviticus 19.1-2,15-18 (Related)
Or Deuteronomy 34.1-12 (Continuous)
1 Thessalonians 2.1-8
“on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt 22.40)
We ask each other questions for all sorts of reasons. We greet each other saying, “Hello, how are you?” A traveller might ask, “What time is the next train to London?”; a doctor assesses his patient’s condition asking, “where does it hurt? What sort of pain is it?” Questions are asked to test our knowledge, sometimes for fun in things like pub quizzes and sometimes in more serious contexts like exams and interviews. In these latter cases we may have to think very hard about a question in order to work out what its main point is and what information or arguments are being sought. But examining bodies or potential employers on the whole probably don’t ask “trick” questions. They are not deliberately seeking to catch a candidate out, they just want him or her to delve deeply into their store of knowledge and experience.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus is being questioned in a hostile way by the Pharisees, in Jerusalem. They are conspiring against him, asking questions in the hope of tricking him into giving a response that can lead to a charge against him of either blasphemy under Jewish law or insurrection against Roman law. How will Jesus respond to this attempt to lure him into self-incrimination?
On the face of it the question Jesus is asked is straight forward: “which commandment in the law is the greatest?” It was not unusual for Rabbis to discuss the relative importance of the 613 commandments of God contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, there’s a catch: it was held that all these commandments were equally binding so if Jesus were to suggest that one commandment took precedence over the others he could be accused of repudiating and annulling the Law of God. This is the trap that is set for him and tensions are running high.
Without giving any indication that he’s spotted the trap, Jesus answers the question in a very traditional way albeit with his own little twist. He quotes Deuteronomy 6.5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This forms part of a prayer used twice daily by devout Jews then and now. He then links this verse with part of a verse from Leviticus 19, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” in a way not previously used in Jewish writings and finishes off his reply by saying that all the other commandments “hang” on these two.
What Jesus is saying is that these two great commandments underpin the others. They provide a guiding principle to be applied to the interpretation of the other commandments. And that guiding principle is the overriding obligation to love God and neighbour.
What a shame the Pharisees weren’t interested in entering into a real debate with Jesus. What a fascinating and challenging conversation they could have had with him if only they had listened with open hearts and minds. What might they have learnt? What can we draw today from the answer Jesus gave to those Pharisees?
Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to take what we might call an holistic approach to our faith. He is inviting us to become fully integrated men and women whose hearts, souls and minds are working together and directed towards knowing and loving the God who knows and loves us beyond anything we can imagine.
Perhaps Jesus is inviting us to think about the differences between following a set of laws imposed upon us by some authoritative but impersonal body and choosing ourselves to follow the commandments of love which are in fact invitations to freedom from oppression and new ways of living.
Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that God creates us in his image and therefore the image of the divine is present in us and in all our neighbours. The commandment to love God cannot be separated from the commandment to love others and to treat them as we ourselves would wish to be treated.
Perhaps Jesus is suggesting that we need to think about balance in our lives: the way we’re influenced by our thoughts and feelings and where our priorities lie at the moment.
Whatever it is Jesus is saying to us he is surely calling for our unswerving loyalty to God in all that we do and our offering of ourselves to him so that he can restore his image in us and draw us ever closer to his perfect heart of love.
Let us bring our prayers to God trusting in his love for all people and asking for his blessing on all those for whom we pray.
We pray for God’s church, acknowledging our failure to live in unity as the Body of Christ in our world.
We pray for all the nations of our world, that a longing for justice and peace may grow wherever there is oppression and conflict.
We pray for the communities in which we live and work that we may see Christ in our neighbours and that our neighbours may see Christ in us.
We pray for those whose lives are over-shadowed by disease of body, heart, soul or mind. May God’s love and light flow into their whole beings so that they know themselves to be the beloved children of God, held in his tender embrace.
Lord God, we offer you these prayers. Use them and us to further your purposes and keep us always mindful of the love you show for us and those for whom we pray in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.
 R T France “Matthew”, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Inter-Varsity Press 1985