Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, Saying, What think ye of Christ? whose son is he? They say unto him, The son of David. He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions. --
In this portion on St. Matthew’s Gospel, we see Our Lord being tested once again by the Pharisees and Sadducees regarding the interpretation of Scripture and the meaning of God’s law. In response to this test, Our Lord first gives us the clear statement of the Two Great Commandments. Then he gives us a brilliant and succinct method of showing those who would hope to “catch” him in some nuance of the law his complete mastery of Sacred Scripture. It is especially useful to consider this passage in light of the companion Second Epistle from St. Paul to the Corinthians (4:6-15) and especially the preceding and following passages from St. Matthew.
When we go to church each Sunday, and hear the Gospel preached, it is not enough for us to only hear it pronounced by the priest at that moment. We should take our bulletins home, carefully read and meditate upon each Scripture passage pronounced that week, as well as the one for the next Sunday. In addition, one can benefit from a fuller and richer understanding of each Sunday’s Gospel reading simply by reading a chapter before, and after, each Sunday’s appointed selection. This can help provide a clearer, and more profound understanding of just what happens to us when we read the Holy Gospel Books.
In this particular reading, it’s important to take note that this reading comes just after the time that Jesus had entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. There is the cleansing of the temple, where Jesus drives the money-changers out of God’s house and he says “My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you make it a den of robbers.” This is another open challenge to the “powers that be” in Jerusalem, namely the Pharisees and Sadducees. Thus they intend to challenge Jesus with a series of questions involving scripture and law, in the hopes of casting doubt or discredit upon Him.
“Out of immeasurable spite,” the Blessed Theophylact writes, “this man comes forward to put the Lord to the test. For when they saw the Sadducees put to shame (in the passage immediately before this reading) and the Lord praised for His wisdom, they came forward to test Him to see if he would add something to the first commandment, and thus give them the chance to accuse Him of being an innovator who corrects the law. But the Lord discloses their malice, and because they came not to learn, but rather, devoid of love, to show their envy and their spite. He reveals to them the exceedingly great love expressed by the commandments. And He teaches that we ought not to love God partially, but to give all of ourselves to God.”
This reflection by the Blessed Theophylact is good reason to make us pause and consider our own attitudes and practices towards our Savior. Do we truly love God with our entire being, or are we just going through the motions? Do we try to find a “new” way to somehow prove our own point, our own arguments, our own self-importance over the very words of Our Lord and Savior? To fulfill this great commandment, our total love for God must also be a knowing, rational and reasoned love and not just the force of habit or custom. Thus, we are called by these two great commandments to follow our Lord and to be the “light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Especially in these times, let us put aside the vengeful, spiteful and selfish attitudes of this lawyer’s test and live in the great brilliance of these, the two Great Commandments.
As difficult as that may be, in this life of spiritual warfare where we are “hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed... perplexed but not in despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Corinthians) let us take comfort and renew our spiritual strength and resolve through the great grace The Lord gives us by living these same two Great Commandments.
The “puzzle” that Our Lord gives back to the lawyer at the end of this reading is a small piece of brilliance which also gives us a hint at the great love Our Lord both freely gives to us all, and receives from God the Father. The first “Lord” refers to God the Father, the second one to the Messiah -- the Son -- whom we say “sitteth at the right hand of the father” when we recite the Nicean Creed. It’s a brief linguistic hint at Trinitarian theology, but it is also something that causes his testers to be unable “to answer him a word.”
It’s important to remember that this same phrase is used elsewhere in Sacred Scripture, for Jesus himself quotes this from Psalm 110:1 to test the lawyer. Further, the same passage is referred to in Acts 2:34-35 and Hebrews 1:13 and 10:12-13. In consulting these other passages of the New Testament, reflect upon Our Lord’s Great Commandments at the point each of these references appears.
Finally, Our Lord pronounces “woe unto you Scribes and Pharisees” in the passages immediately following this one. He gives them a very clear picture of exactly who and what they are for seeking to trip Him up in this way. This again provides us with a moment to pause and consider our own lives and attitudes towards God. Let us therefore seek to fulfill these same two Great Commandments in our words, deeds attitudes and actions and avoid the great temptation of trying to find a way to “outsmart” God.
-- Fr. Charles Baxter