36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
The text says that they were trying to “test him.” It is not a sincere question. His interrogators already know the answer – or, at least, think they do. Their purpose is to show that Jesus is ignorant of the law and the complex arguments that go into weighing all the different commands and prohibitions God has given in the Torah, the covenant law found in Exodus through Deuteronomy. There is a rule that you must corral your neighbor’s ox or donkey if it wanders off – but there is a rule not to work on Sabbath. What if the animal upon which your neighbor’s life depends wanders off on Sabbath? Which command is more important? The task of ranking the 613 commandments is a complicated one. And which lies at the top? Which is most important of all? This is the question the Pharisees set before Jesus. It is a question designed to disgrace him in the eyes of others, to show his ignorance, to show he is not worthy to be followed.
But Jesus gives a prompt and knowledgeable answer. He cites Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the daily recitation of all faithful: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” And then he adds a second that is ‘like it’ from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
A lot hinges on that phrase ‘like it.’ First of all the sentence begins with the disjunctive conjunction ‘but’ or ‘now’ rather than the normal ‘and’. The word of Jesus sounds much different if he says “but a second is like it.” It suggests that there is some surprise in that added element.
What exactly does Jesus mean that it is ‘like it’? Is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ loving God? Or is loving one’s neighbor ‘like’ the other in that they are of equal weight, both are the chief command?
Is Jesus giving a conventional answer and then adding a challenge: “But a second is equal to it”?
It is a conflict situation, and I think that requires us to hear this second part of his answer as if Jesus were striking back at his opponents. He has not only shown that he knows the scripture – but he is attacking their central weakness. These are a people he will accuse of tithing their garden herbs in a scrupulous attention to the commandments, while neglecting the weightier matters of justice and mercy.
You cannot separate love from God from love from neighbor. The religious people think they love God faithfully, honoring him in their scrupulous observance of the purity laws and temple rituals, but they ignore the hungry and burdened at their doorstep. They are indifferent to the suffering of those losing their land under the burden of imperial rule. And they haven’t even begun to consider the radical idea that all people are their neighbor, that all people must be regarded with the same concern and attachment as members of a common household or clan.
There is a rebuke in Jesus’ answer, a rebuke we should hear carefully.