From the “SALT Project”
1) This is the fifth week focusing on the back-and-forth in the Jerusalem Temple between Jesus and various religious and civic authorities, all of which takes place over a two-day sit-in or “teach-in” in the Temple by Jesus, his entourage, and the accompanying Palm Sunday crowds. This week, the final round: a last question from a group of religious leaders, and a last question from Jesus.
2) The duels so far have consisted largely of the authorities trying to discredit Jesus by testing his knowledge and trying to entrap him — and so it’s a fitting reversal that he finishes out the struggle by stumping them with a scriptural riddle.
3) It was a common exercise among religious scholars of the day to debate which of the 613 commandments in the law is “the greatest,” meaning the one that sums up the essence of the whole, or serves as the hub at the center of them all. The so-called “Shema” (or “Listen”) figured largely in Israelite liturgy and life: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5). “Love your neighbor as yourself” is from Leviticus 19:18, a relatively minor commandment among the 613, but at the same time one sometimes exalted as quintessential
4) The context of Leviticus 19 is worth bearing in mind, since it indicates what sort of “love” Jesus is referencing. The verses just prior to 19:18 command Israel to leave gleanings in the fields both for the impoverished and for immigrants, and to refrain from dishonesty, stealing, mistreating the disabled, corruption, slander, hatred — and finally, in verse 18 itself, vengeance: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:18).
5) Likewise, the context of Deuteronomy 6:5 is worth remembering: here the “love” God commands is to be manifest in “keeping all God’s decrees and commandments, so that your days may be long” (Deut 6:2). That is, the law is given not as an arbitrary list of “thou shalts and shalt nots,” but rather as a listener’s guide to vibrant, healthy communal life.