Bible Commentary: The ‘mega mitzva’

The love of God requires and is expressed through the love of neighbor.

Golden Rule 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Golden Rule 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
An expert in the Torah (a lawyer) asked Jesus, “Which commandment in the Law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36 NRSV). Was this a trick question “to test” or “tempt” (KJV) him (22:35)? How can one commandment be called the “greatest” (Greek megas)? There are 613 mitzvot in the Torah, according to rabbinic count. Are some less important or not so “great”? Even Jesus states that whoever keeps “the least” of the commandments and teaches others to do the same “shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” (5:19).
To confuse matters further, Jesus cites two commands when asked for one. How many “great commandments” are there? One or two? What we have here is a translation’s failure to communicate. To understand this weighty text, we must situate it in its original Jewish context, including the teaching traditions of Judaism’s sages. That will help clarify its meaning, as well as draw attention to a vital point in Jesus’s reply that often is missed by Christian readers.
The incident described in Matthew 22:35ff (and Mark 12:28ff) was not an uncommon one in the first century.
Experts in halacha (legal rulings) might well ask a sage, “Teacher, how do you read the Torah? What do you take to be its core or great precept?” Before and after the time of Jesus, sages like Hillel and Rabbi Akiva attempted to formulate a condensed set of principles that represented the whole Torah. Some suggested that the Ten Commandments could be viewed in this way.
One said that Micah 6:8 (“O Man, what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?) constituted a foundational summary of our Torah responsibilities. Another proposal was Habakkuk 2:4 (“The righteous shall live by his faith”). Hillel and Akiva agreed that Leviticus 19:18 was the core precept of the Torah: “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So the question to Jesus was not some trick or test but a genuine inquiry as to his interpretation of the Torah. Nor was Jesus’s reply entirely novel or unexpected; it was consistent with the best of Second Temple Jewish values.
However, to understand the striking implications of his answer, we must consider the rabbinic style of teaching he employs.
Jesus is saying far more than that the “great commandment” consists of two parts – love of God (Deuteronomy 6:5) and love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). He uses a Jewish method of scriptural exegesis called gezera shava, or verbal analogy. The sages liked to interpret scripture with scripture. To explain the meaning of a verse, they would look in the Bible for another verse with the same key word or phrase, and then use the second text to interpret the meaning of the first.
The key phrase in Deuteronomy 6:5 that Jesus picks up on is “And you shall love…” (v’ahavta). He links it with the identical phrase in Leviticus 19:18, “And you shall love…” (v’ahavta), thereby using the latter to interpret the intent of the former. The love of God requires and is expressed through the love of neighbor, he claims.
Leviticus 19:18, therefore, is not a “second-place” command. For Jesus it is equivalent to Deuteronomy 6:5.
He links these two scriptures so they become one.
This understanding of the “great commandment” is consistent with Jesus’s teaching on another occasion when he states the core precept of the Torah thus: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). This “Golden Rule” is his variation on Leviticus 19:18.
We also now can reconcile the apostle Paul’s view with that of Jesus: “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14 NRSV). Paul is not overlooking the obligation to “love God…” Rather, from the master he learned that Deuteronomy 6:5 is fulfilled in the doing of Leviticus 19:18. This truly is the “mega mitzva.” 
Dr. Pryor is founder and president of the Center for Judaic- Christian Studies;