Who Is the Greatest? I’ve Got Two Answers

Liturgical churches, beginning to wind down their year of Matthew, will hear a portion of his gospel this Sunday in which a Pharisee asked Jesus which commandment is the greatest. Jesus answered: “You shall love the Lord hour God with all our heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment and the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22) Luke’s gospel records the scene differently. In his version the Pharisee asked Jesus what was needed to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked in return for him to take a guess, what did he read in scripture about it? In response, the Pharisee recited the two great commandments: one from Deut. 6, the other from Lev. 19. (Luke 10)

The most recurring question throughout years of teaching adult Christian education was about how to interpret the contradictory complexity of moral teaching contained in holy scripture. Many adults, even in the Episcopal Church, have been influenced by television and radio programming from evangelical fundamentalists who insist on scriptural literalism. They deny that some parts of scripture are more worthy, or have greater value, than other parts. They infuse listeners with fear of challenging scripture lest it break or make God angry. It suffocates the holy mystery of scripture, and it stifles honest conversation unafraid to ask challenging questions. Scripture isn’t weak or brittle. It won’t break. Addressing it with challenging questions won’t undermine it. The gospels are filled with challenging questions, including the reading from Matthew, and its near kin in Luke.

The two greatest commandments are the answer to the recurring question. All scripture, every word of it, must be weighed by whether it points toward the love of God, self and neighbor. In the episode as recorded by Matthew, Jesus followed his endorsement of the commandments by asking the Pharisees to explain how the Messiah could be David’s son, which scripture says he is, if scripture also cited David as claiming the Messiah was his Lord. Matthew goes on to say that no one dared to ask more questions, but I doubt it. I imagine it turned into a donnybrook of rabbinic argument about the proper interpretation of conflicting passages. And that’s not a bad thing; God’s holy word was not injured in the least. Who knows, they might have learned something. We readers will have, if we dare to enter into it.

In Luke’s version, Jesus commended the Pharisee for knowing the two greatest commandments, but the guy went on to challenge both Jesus and scripture on the question of who one’s neighbor is. The passage from Leviticus cited as the source of the second great commandment seems to be clear: neighbors are kinfolk, members of one’s tribe, the people who live nearby. I wonder if the Pharisee’s question ended with an “isn’t that so?” So Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan featuring a despised minority walking in a place he had no business being in, a couple of ranking clergy, a compliant innkeeper, and a robbery victim about whom we know nothing. Jesus’ question about who was the neighbor, and his injunction to go and do likewise, has generated two-thousand years of conversation, some quite heated. He didn’t cite any scripture to prove his case, but then God incarnate doesn’t have to, but he could have. Laws asserting the status of neighbor extends to sojourners and resident aliens are scattered all through scripture. Psalm 37 claims the status of kinship for close enemies and far away nations, it even includes the unnamed: “this one and that one were born in [Zion].”

Scripture is meant to be wallowed in, wrestled with, argued with as vehemently as did Moses, the prophets and psalmists. It’s how the Word of God contained in it is discerned. You can’t hurt it. In the tussle it will teach you and change you. Through it, God will speak to your heart and head. Like Isaac wrestling with the Holy One all night, it may even leave you limping. Go for it. It’s worth it.

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