October 7, 2005

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Greatest commandment

See Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34, Luke 10:25-37

It’s not unusual for Luke’s Gospel to place events in Jesus’ life in different places than Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels do. This is one of those times. Luke places the episode before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem while the other two place it after. Luke also tells the story somewhat differently, including an important elaboration.

It began when a scholar of the Jewish law tried to test Jesus by asking him which commandment is the greatest. In the Jewish law, there were 613 commandments—248 of things a person must do and 365 of things forbidden—and it seems probable that the scholar asking the question had argued his question with other scholars.

Of all those commandments, Jesus selected Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But then he added the second greatest, from Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments, he said, not some that begin with “Thou shalt not,” depend the whole law and the prophets.

In Mark’s version of the story, the scholar agreed with Jesus, saying that love of God and love of neighbor were worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. Jesus approved of his answer, telling him that he was not far from the kingdom of God.

Christians from then on would emphasize the importance of love. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 13:4-13 about love would become a favorite passage at weddings. St. Augustine would advise, “Love and do what you will.”

Luke, though, isn’t yet finished with this story. The scholar felt that he had to continue the discussion. “And who is my neighbor?” he asked, thus opening the door for Jesus to tell us one of his most famous parables—the Good Samaritan.

It’s the story about the victim of robbers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho—a very dangerous road through the Judean wilderness that most Jews would have traveled only in caravans. After both a priest and a Levite passed by the man, a Samaritan stopped and cared for him, taking him to an inn and making arrangements for his further care. The main point of the parable was that love is superior to legalism, but it went far beyond that when it identified a Samaritan as a neighbor that Jews should love.

This would have shocked Jesus’ Jewish listeners. Nothing in the Old Testament told them that love of neighbor extended to these people of mixed race whom the Jews considered ritually impure. Jesus couldn’t have used a better way to insist that the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself extended to everyone without exception. No one is excluded from Jesus’ definition of neighbor.

Lest we overlook it, when Jesus finished his parable and the scholar correctly identified the Samaritan as the one who was neighbor to the robbers’ victim, Jesus told him, and us, “Go and do likewise.” †


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