Which Commandment of the Law Is the Greatest?

SCRIPTURES & ART: A look at the readings for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, through the eyes of Flemish Baroque artist Jacob Jordaens

Jacob Jordaens, “Christ Among the Pharisees,” ca. 1660-1670
Jacob Jordaens, “Christ Among the Pharisees,” ca. 1660-1670 (photo: Public Domain)

Once again, the Pharisees want to trap Jesus. Matthew 22 is full of controversies. After opening with the parable of the wedding feast and the man without a wedding garment, there follow four separate dialogues in which either the Sadducees or Pharisees try to trap Jesus with his words. Neither group is sincerely interested in hearing Jesus. They just want to trip him up. 

The confrontation starts with the episode of the tribute coin and “rendering unto Caesar.” It is followed by a test case from the Sadducees (Matthew 22:27-37) about one wife for seven brothersk and whose wife she is on the Last Day. That episode immediately precedes today’s Gospel, which alludes to it: after “Jesus had silenced the Sadducees …” Explaining that prior episode will illumine today’s Gospel. (That previous episode is not included among the Sunday readings, although it would fit well right now with November — the month of the Holy Souls — upon us.)

The Sadducees were the Pharisees’ opponents. If we are wont to apply categories not particularly appropriate to religious matters, on Israel’s theological spectrum the Sadducees were actually “conservative” and the Pharisees “liberal.” The Sadducees were also highly clerical, whereas the Pharisees were, in our terms, “lay.” 

The Sadducees resisted any theological developments in Judaism. Because a Jewish understanding of life after death came relatively late — in the first century before Christ — the Sadducees deemed it a novelty. They held to the traditional Jewish notion of Sheol, a murky, post-mortem half-existence that was the fate of all the dead. Against that background, they rejected the idea of resurrection. That’s why they try to trip up Jesus by asking: well, if there is a resurrection and seven brothers married a woman according to Levirate law (if a man died before having children, his brother was supposed to take the wife and raise up children through her for his brother) and all were childless, who gets the infertile woman on the last day? By their theological standards, they knew it was an absurd question. All they wanted was to get Jesus on record giving an absurd answer that would alienate him from the people they didn’t want listening to him. Kind of a first-century “gotcha.”

Jesus silences the Sadducees by elevating the discourse about eschatology. Then the Pharisees take their shot: today’s Gospel. The Pharisees were focused on the Law. They saw it as the checklist for how to please God. They scrupulously identified 613 commandments (mitzvah) in the Old Testament. They also developed a whole “jurisprudence,” an entire body of interpretive law and customs to apply those 613 mitzvahs. Their vision of relations with God tended to pull God down to their level (not unlike the laborers last month complaining about their wages). Do A, B, C and D and God “owes” salvation (since he is just). (The problem, obviously, is that we cannot impose obligations on God because keeping his Law is not doing him a “favor” and he is not our peer.) So, if doing A, B, C and D is connected with so valuable an outcome, how do we assign priorities among A, B, C and D? “Teacher, which commandment of the Law is the greatest?”

Jesus’ answer is very Jewish. (This is, after all, Matthew’s Gospel, written to Jewish converts to Christianity. Matthew’s theological goal is to demonstrate Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel). Here are the top two Commandments:

The first commandment is the Shema Yisrael (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל). Every day, observant Jews recite Deuteronomy 6:4-9, which is what Jesus quotes: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Every Jew knew that by heart. That is your absolute priority. That is the measure of everything else. That is the yardstick for all other relationships: that’s why Jesus can say that even burying one’s father is subordinate to the love of God (Luke 9:57-62), and why the love of God can be the source of family divisions (Luke 12:51-53). Yes, God is a “jealous God” (Exodus 20:5) in the sense that he insists there can be room for only one God in your life.

Once that perspective is straight, Jesus speaks of the second commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not a uniquely Christian perspective. The Old Testament is clear that love of God is incompatible with shafting of neighbor: consider Isaiah, speaking in God’s name (1:11-17) about how onerous are sacrifices to the Lord polluted with the stench of injustice. Or Amos’ indictment of Israel (2:6-16), selling the “poor for a pair of sandals,” the cheapest footwear at Shekel Store.

“The whole law and the prophets depend on these.” Jesus even ups the ante: love of God and neighbor is not just the central axis of the Law (Torah) — the most sacred part of the Bible to Jews (and certainly Pharisees) — but also of the Prophets (nebiim). In other words, it is central to the whole Bible as it was understood by the pious Jew.

In each confrontation detailed in Matthew 22, Jesus not only evades the verbal trap his interlocutors lay but destroys their snare by elevating the question beyond the pedestrian considerations in which they framed it. 

For the artistic illustration of today’s Gospel, I chose a painting by Flemish Baroque artist Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678). “Christ Among the Pharisees” comes from late in Jordaens’ life (1660-70), almost certainly when he had already converted from Catholicism to Calvinism. “Christ and the Pharisees,” a similar painting, comes from about the same time. Neither pictures the Pharisees in a positive light.

In some sense, associating these paintings with today’s Gospel is somewhat arbitrary. I already pointed this out in the past: especially in the last weeks of the Easter season when the Gospels shift from concrete post-Resurrection appearances to Jesus’ teachings, it’s hard to assign a particular painting to a particular teaching. Jesus’ “teaching” in appearance can be connected with a multitude of paintings. 

The same applies to Jesus and Pharisees: whether they’re disputing about the Greatest Commandment or grounds for divorce, such scenes — except where they involve something tangible (like Caesar’s coinage) — often get folded under more general paintings of Jesus and Pharisees. That’s true today.

One might say today’s painting is seven Pharisees — armed with biblical books — disputing with Jesus over which commandment is greatest. Three open books suggest there’s a variety of commandments to choose from. Jesus’ serene face, inspired by the Holy Spirit above him, contrasts sharply with the grotesque Pharisees quibbling among themselves and ready to make points and counterpoints with the rabbi from Nazareth (as if anything good could come from there — cf. John 1:46). That would be a nice wrap up of the Gospel.

The problem is, none of that is based in fact and, if you can read the books in the painting, it’s about something else.

Not a lot has been written in English about Jordaens, except for a long 1982 study by Roger d’Hulst. Jordaens lived in Antwerp, Belgium, at a time when the Low Countries (today’s Belgium and Holland) were part of Spain. Jordaens was almost certainly born into a Catholic family. (I say “almost certainly” because some Flemish Protestants were baptized in the Catholic Church since the Church was the keeper of civil records.) His parents were Catholics, a brother was in a religious order, one sister was a Third Order Franciscan, and two others were also parts of lay religious orders. Jordaens was married in the Church though, as d’Hulst notes, lots of Flemish Protestants did that because Protestant marriage was not recognized in the Spanish Netherlands. His wife died first and was buried a Protestant.

We know, according to d’Hulst, that by the time Jordaens painted this picture (c. 1660) he was already a Protestant. A deeper analysis of the painting shows that it is an anti-Catholic polemic.

The books are open to Isaiah (Chapter 63) and various passages of John. As one commentator notes, these texts refer to Christ, whom the Protestant Reformers believe they have recovered and whom the disbelieving “Pharisees” (read “Catholics”) did not recognize. That these are not just good old Jewish Pharisees from Jesus’ day is evident from the Biblical books: the Pharisees would not have had, much less consulted, John’s Gospel. One art critic thinks the painting is a polemic about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (i.e., resisting divine inspiration), of which Jordaens is accusing the Pharisee Catholics. That author also suggests that the configuration around the table (not unlike a Last Supper) may be an allusion to Catholic/Protestant disputes over the Eucharist.

So much for our excursus into being historically honest about paintings we could try to apply to other Gospel accounts that really don’t fit. That said, Jordaen’s “Christ among the Pharisees” (if we overlook the books actually opened) would seem capable of illustrating an afternoon of exegeting just which of the 613 Old Testament mitzvahs is the greatest.

More important for us in the debate over Commandment priorities is: are they the greatest in our lives? Are my priorities straight, so that my relationship with God measures everything else? After all, as the contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski (Clash of Civilizations) makes clear, there’s no such thing as an atheist. Everybody has a “god,” the deity against which all else is measured. He may be the “God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob … and Jesus,” or he may be some other idol, but that god — true or false — is one’s supreme being and value that is unmeasured but measures all else. So, is God in my first place? And which God? That answered, does love of neighbor flow from that relationship, given — as John (1 John 4:20) observes — that “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen?”

(Today’s painting seems to have been once owned by the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh but apparently recently was sold at auction through Sotheby’s to a private collection. If that is true, it is reflective of the practice in some museums to sell off what — unfortunately — might be called their “B” Masters list to raise money for other, usually more contemporary, purchases.)