Historical Cultural Context
The Law of Love
Jesus’ statement on the greatest commandment is probably the best-known and most-discussed passage in all of Scripture. Placed in its Mediterranean cultural context, it takes on a fresh and concrete meaning.
The episode is yet another example of the continuous cultural game of challenge and riposte. The text clearly states that the Pharisee intends his question as a challenge (“to test him,” Mt 22:34). (The Greek manuscript evidence for “lawyer” is not very strong. It was probably inserted here due to influence from Lk 10:25.)
The Relative Importance of the Commandments
On the face of it, the question appears very honest. The Pharisees identified 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Two hundred forty-eight were positive (“thou shalt”) and three hundred sixty-five were negative (“thou shalt not”). How could anyone remember all of them? Were some more important than others?
Some teachers distinguished between “heavy” and “light” commandments. The “Ten” (e.g., honor father and mother) are examples of heavy or serious commandments. An example of a light or less serious commandment is Dt 22:6-7, which stipulates that a person who finds a bird’s nest with a mother sitting on eggs or with young may take the young but must let the mother go. The reason for observing both is “that it may go well with you, and that you may live long” (Dt 5:16; 22:7).
Another custom was to sum up the Torah’s commandments in a small number of precepts or a summary statement. Thus King David proposed eleven (Ps 15), Isaiah six (33:15), Micah three (6:8), and Amos only one (5:4).
In reply to the Pharisee’s question about the “greatest commandment,” Jesus combines two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (citing and amending Dt 6:5). And the second of equal importance is “love your neighbor as yourself” (citing Lv 19:18). Jesus does not discard other commandments. He explicitly adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Essentially, Jesus’ answer is very orthodox, very traditional. If there is any distinctiveness, it lies in his understanding of neighbor which he explains in Lk 10:29-33 but not at this point. (Leviticus specifies neighbor as brother, that is, fellow Israelite. Luke’s Jesus expands the concept of neighbor to be more inclusive.)
More importantly, what does Jesus understand by love? Mediterranean cultural anthropology sheds some light. Remember that our ancestors in the faith were strongly group centered. The group was family, village, neighborhood, and factions (like the Twelve, the Pharisees, etc.) which a person might join.
The group gave a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and advice for actions to be taken or avoided. The group was an external conscience exerting enormous pressure on its individual members.
In this context, love and hate are best understood as group attachment and group disattachment. Whether emotion or affection is involved is beside the point. The major feeling in love and hate is a feeling of belonging or not belonging, respectively.
Thus, to love God with all one’s heart is to be totally attached to God. To love neighbor as self is to be as totally attached to people in one’s neighborhood or immediate circle of friends (i.e., fellow Israelites) as one is to one’s family group. This has been and continues to be the normal way of life in the Mediterranean world, unless feuding develops.
To “hate one’s father, mother,” and others as Luke’s Jesus (Lk 14:26) requires of his followers means to detach oneself from family and join the Jesus group. Paul says the greatest among the virtues faith, hope, and charity is charity, that is, love or attachment to the group.
The group-attachment aspect of love poses a challenge to individualistically oriented, emotional American believers. Which commandment would American believers say is the greatest? And what does that mean?
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University