We spent our spring/summer on the series "Ten", taking a look at what the 10 Commandments tell us about the nature of God. I decided it would be good to end with "Eleven", a summary of the commandments similar to the way Jesus put them all together so beautifully in Matthew 22. So let's fast-forward from Mt. Sinai to Palestine at the time of Jesus...
Everywhere Jesus went, there were a mixed bag of people that gathered around him: some were his disciples, some were just curious, and some were his detractors. We'll divide his detractors into two groups: Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were teachers of the Law who valued not only the written tradition but oral tradition as well. They were conservatives who were committed to God's Word, but they were notorious for adding extra restriction to what God had given. They were messianic (expecting a Messiah sent from God), and they believed in resurrection.
The other guys (Sadducees) were more like political elitists who governed the affairs of the people. They tended to be more concerned with process and governance than anything else. They were non-messianic, and tended to overlook the Law where convenient, and they did not believe in resurrection.
Both of these groups had an interest in bringing Jesus down. The Pharisees wanted to protect the Law and traditions as they saw it, and the Sadducees wanted to protect their political agenda. So in Matthew 22, we find Jesus engaged in conversation with both groups who were trying to trap him. The Pharisees asked him about paying taxes to Caesar, and Jesus gave his "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" response. Then the Sadducees took a shot by asking an obscure, extreme hypothetical question about a widow who had been married to seven husbands who died and quizzed Jesus about who she would be married to in the afterlife (even though they didn't believe in resurrection). And Jesus shut them down.
So the Pharisees took another shot at Jesus while the Sadducees licked their wounds. That's where you can find the story in Matthew 22:34-40. I find it really interesting that when Jesus answered the Pharisee's question, he did so not with new wisdom or new insight. No. He answered their question with ancient wisdom found in the most familiar scripture known to every Jewish man, woman, and child -- the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind" (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). It is THIS commandment Jesus calls the "Greatest Commandment" -- to love God with your totality. Jesus did not give them a new morality but reminded them of what has always been true: the foundation for our life begins with a love for God.
And then Jesus gives a part deux to their question by quoting a portion of Leviticus 19:18: "...love your neighbor as you love yourself. I am the Lord." Jesus put these two commandments together in a beautiful entwining of love for God and love for others, and it remained a consistent theme throughout the New Testament. If you have the eyes to see it, you'll see the pairing everywhere.
Jesus is the True Interpreter of God's Law. He knows the character of God better than anyone since he and the Father are One. And he recites these commandments as the lens through which to understand all the commandments of God: they help us to understand what it means to love God and to love our neighbor.
Jesus reminds us that our love for God is essential to life and that out of our love for God will flow a love for neighbor and a desire to do good to them.
So what does this encounter with the Pharisees and Jesus's summary of the commandments teach us about the nature of God? The Lord is unchanging ("Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever." -- Heb. 13:8). There's nothing new here, folks. Jesus is just helping us to see the way it's always been.
As with the Pharisees, God does not approve when we add extra burdens to what God has given. As with the Sadducees, God does not approve when we try to take away what God has given. It's how we read scripture: "We do not make the scriptures say what they do not say, and we do not make them un-say what they do say."
Jesus has a very high view of God's Laws, and he did not come to do away with any of them but to fulfill them and lead us to the Father. His wise simplicity cut through Pharisaical complication and helps us understand the heart of God behind every word He has given us.
Thank you, Jesus, for knowing I would need it this simply.