A Lawyer Tests Jesus — ‘Which Is the Greatest Commandment?’

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, says the Lord; and my Father will love him and we will come to him.” (John 14:23)

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Scribe Stood to Tempt Jesus”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Scribe Stood to Tempt Jesus” (photo: Public Domain)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus teaches that the greatest commandments are love of God and love of neighbor. 

Illustrating this event in religious art is a challenge because, as I’ve noted before, when Jesus “teaches” something, the depiction of the event is likely to be similar to many other “teaching” moments, regardless of whether he is teaching about divorce or the greatest commandment. One had to pay attention to the details to ensure that the image really depicts the scene at issue, as opposed to being made to “fit” the scene.

When Jesus is asked which is the greatest commandment, Mark (today’s Evangelist) simply tells us a “scribe” posed the question. Matthew (22:34-40) gives us a broader picture. Throughout Matthew 22, Jesus has been on the receiving end of various theological debates — with the Pharisees over paying taxes to Caesar, and the Sadducees over the resurrection of the dead. They weren’t honest discussions as much as efforts to trap Jesus, not unlike the “gotcha” moments of some of the mass media or woke “culture.” So, in Matthew’s parallel to today’s Gospel, “when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees … one of them, an expert in the law, tested him with a question …” (Matthew 22:34-35).

“Tested.” It’s an important detail that helps cull potential example of artwork. If you read Mark alone, you might get the impression the “scribe” was in honest search for an answer. I looked at some works where Jesus was sitting, one-on-one, with his interlocutor. Maybe that could be our scribe. Or maybe Jesus and Nicodemus?

Comparing this text to its Matthean parallel and the key word “test” provides us with important clues. The question does not come up in an honest discussion with a solitary interlocutor. It’s part of a collective argument, tending towards a trap.

Thankfully, our old stand-by, James Tissot, gives us ammunition with his “Le scribe se leva pour tenter Jésus” (The Scribe Stood Up to Tempt Jesus). 

For Jews, what we call the “Old Testament” consists of three parts: the “Torah” or the Law, consisting of the first five books of the Bible; the “Nebiim” or the Prophets; and the “Ketubim” or the Writings. For Jews, the Torah is the most sacred: what the prophets say and what is elsewhere written is measured against the Torah (which helps separate true from false prophets).

The Torah, or Law, actually consists of 613 commandments. The Pharisees wanted to follow God’s will. They understood that to mean following his 613 commandments. (The danger, of course, is the belief that one can thus “earn” salvation.)

Wanting properly and accurately to fulfill so formidable a set of positive and negative commandments resulted, over time, with overlays of interpretation. So, our scribe raises a question no doubt debated among the Pharisees themselves: how do you rank or prioritize these commandments? In essence, like the debate between Shammai and Hillel over the grounds for divorce (the Gospel of Oct. 3), the scribe wants to enmesh Jesus in intramural Pharisaic debates (and probably take down Jesus’ popularity a notch, especially with the “losers” in sides-taking).

Jesus cuts through the tax code complexity of Pharisaic interpretation to refocus his listeners on the core of Jewish belief, the profession of faith that every good Jew recited every day, the Shema yisrael (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and mind and strength.” To which Jesus adds the second commandment: love of neighbor.

Jesus’s “pastoral problem” in his day was wading through the sticky wicket of layers and layers of interpretation, cutting to the chase: all those laws encapsulate love of God and neighbor. They lose their sense is not interpreted through that lens.

Our “pastoral problem” today is somewhat different. If Jesus’s lawyer has lost his way in a jungle of interpretation, some Christians today have lost their way in an oversimplifying reductionism. “I don’t need all these laws as long as I ‘love.’ Laws get in the way of ‘love.’”

That’s not exactly what Jesus — the one who tells his Apostles he has not “not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17) — said. The reason the laws are there is to enable love of God and love of neighbor. But love of God and love of neighbor are not some free-flowing emotion free of the moral law.

Part of Western man’s problem is that we often rely on an impoverished notion of law. We take “law” to mean an act of somebody’s will, God’s or man’s. What matters is the lawgiver’s will.

In that version of things, God could have made the Ten Commandments the opposite of what they are — “Thou shall lie,” “Thou shall kill,” Thou shall commit adultery” — and that would be perfectly alright, because it’s God’s will. Indeed, that’s what the nominalist William of Ockham claimed (whom Luther followed) claimed.

Catholic theology recognizes this to be false. God is not some capricious lawgiver. The Ten Commandments are not Divine whims. God is not like Zeus or Apollo, bigger and stronger than man and so capable of decreeing good or evil as a god’s will to be obeyed. That is not the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. That is not Jesus.

God is God and must be faithful to himself. A God who is Truth cannot make a world in which “Thou shalt lie.” A God who is Faithfulness cannot make a world in which “Thou shalt commit adultery.” A God who is Life cannot make a world in which “Thou shalt kill.”

To “love” God then is not something separate from, say, the Ten Commandments. I cannot love God and kill. I cannot love God and commit adultery. I cannot love God and steal or lie. 

Civil law, which has lost an awareness of God, thinks that reality is just a label that lawmakers can change by majority vote. But no “democratic majority” can legitimately deny people a right to life any more than a “democratic majority” can make 2+2=5.

So, when Jesus reminds the lawyer that the greatest commandments are love of God and neighbor, he is not trashing the Ten Commandments or throwing them out. He is giving you the prism to understand why they are what they are.

In Tissot’s painting, Jesus is on a mountaintop, removed from the city. Two figures frame the picture: the lawyer and Jesus. Jesus, listening intently, is bent forward; the lawyer, arguing intently, leans forward. Their space between is the heart of the discussion and the painting.

The entourage is limited — 10 other people incline around Jesus, listening to the debate. The two in the foreground, propped up on their elbows, create an angle leading the viewer directly to Jesus. The lawyer is in dark colors, Jesus — characteristic of Tissot — is all white. This is a “black and white” debate.

As previously noted, Tissot used his visits to the Holy Land to try to create a realistic external environment for his paintings, especially coloristically. That Tissot’s debate is situated on a hilltop is telling for me: Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount on a hilltop, and we should not think that Jesus’ moral teaching is somehow disconnected from the moral teaching God revealed to Israel. Jesus may complete it and give it a new internal dynamic, but the moral law and Jesus Teaching should be read in a hermeneutic of continuity, not discontinuity. The Sermon on the Mount may raise the moral stakes, but it doesn’t contradict that Law.