When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees they got together and, to disconcert him, one of them put a question, ‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?’ Jesus said, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: you must love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets also.’Mt 22:34-40
It is in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus affirms “do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets, I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17). Throughout his public ministry, the Pharisees went to great lengths to prove that this was not the case and to this end they probed Jesus endlessly with questions that might have elicited heretical responses. Fully aware of the attempts to ensnare him, Jesus often castigated the Pharisees and their followers, branding them hypocrites and vipers for their devious plotting (Mt 22:18).
Jesus was often asked about the Law, which both underpinned and was central to daily life in Jewish society. In this encounter, his response encapsulates the essence of his public ministry – a love of God and of neighbour. This was not something new or something exclusive to the Christian Scriptures and the Gospel of Christ. Rather, Jesus’ response summarises the Law that was given to Moses, around which individual and communal life functioned. The first three commandments relate to the love of God and the second seven to love of neighbour. Such is this importance of these loves to the Jewish people that they form the basis of the Shema, a daily prayer recited even to this very day.
While Jesus’ response affirmed the importance of the Law, his public ministry revealed that faith-filled action was needed in order for it to be fulfilled. Unlike the Pharisees who were bound to the Law in blind observance, Jesus asserted that the Law needed to be animated by the Spirit in order for it to be meaningful and life-giving. Rather than being captives of the Law, Jesus proclaimed a good news in which the Law gave freedom and sight.