From 613 down to 1 (or is it 2?)

Matthew 22:34-40                                                        August 18, 2013

According to tradition, the Torah contains no fewer than 613 laws that faithful Jews should observe.

Some are prohibitions; things that you shouldn’t do.

Others are commands, or things that you should do.

Some might be things that involve more than one aspect…so that it can be debated if just one law is contained in it, or if it actually contains two.

For example, the command to ‘honor your father and mother’…I could make the case that that’s actually two laws…the first to honor your father, and the second to honor your mother.

And if I developed my case well enough, someone else in this room might be able to argue with me that it’s actually 3 laws…honoring my father, honoring my mother, and also not doing anything that would dishonor my father or mother.

That’s why ‘the tradition’ says that Torah contains no fewer than 613 laws…because the exact number might vary depending on which rabbi you follow.

So already in Jesus’ day, Jewish teachers, or ‘rabbis’ were wrestling with the question of how all of these commandments related to each other.

It was a big thing, for students of first century Judaism, to debate the law, which commands might be the greatest, and if there was a common thread, or a common theme that could encompass all of them.

They would bring passion to these discussions, it was seen as a mark of faithfulness, to make your case and argue passionately about these finer points of the law…in fact, this style of study was common enough that it was said wherever there are two rabbis talking about the Torah, there are at least 3 opinions!!

So that’s a little bit of background for the exchange that we’re looking at this morning.

Jesus lived in a context where the Law was vigorously debated among the people.

Not just the teachers or the rabbis…but even the common folk at the time had a stake in the discussion.

Another interesting thing about this passage is, that this scene comes as kind of a climax in the story. It’s not really a ‘stand-alone’ lesson like we might typically think it is.

If you read the preceding chapters, you’ll find a drama unfolding where Jesus tells a couple of stories that don’t sit well with the people who had religious power in his day.

He tells a series of pretty scandalous parables starting in chapter 21…in these parables, there’s a theme…and that is that at the end of time, what you say you believe might not be as important as how you’ve lived your life.

In these stories, it’s clear that there will be consequences for our actions, and our inactions. They are stories that include judgment; outer darkness, stern and righteous rulers who expect a level of respect for their authority…

In other words, it’s clear in these stories that those 613 commandments are pretty important…both what you need to be doing AND what you need to be avoiding.

But what’s not clear in these stories that Jesus tells, is who’s going to be in and who’s going to be out.

It’s not clear who’s going to make the cut, so to speak.

In fact, in these scandalous stories that he tells, it’s almost like the ones who have been given power and authority…or the ones you would expect to be welcomed into God’s kingdom first…they’re actually barred from entering.

It’s like everything is getting flipped upside down.

These stories didn’t exactly sit well with the Pharisees.

See, they were the ones who had devoted their lives to keeping all 613 or more of these laws in place, enforced, and in the public mind.


They were the ones who felt compelled to make sure there were no surprises on judgment day, you know? Not just for themselves, but for everyone else too.

They wanted people to know where they stood, and what was required of them in order to gain entrance into God’s Kingdom.

The Pharisees were guardians of the way…they were the workers in the vineyard.

I have a feeling they saw themselves much as pastors today see ourselves…working as hard as we know how to work for “the kingdom”.

So, I have some sympathy for the Pharisees when Jesus tells these stories…because it gets personal when you care about something enough to devote your life to it…something you work hard at…something you’ve poured yourself into…and then you have a wild-eyed radical showing up and telling you you’re actually doing more harm than good…while at the same time gaining all kinds of followers.

I’d be concerned, too.

So what happens is, about halfway through chapter 22, you read about the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming up to him, trying to trip him up or at the very least, discredit him.

There’s a little bit of a back and forth, and neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees are able to get an upper hand, and then we come to the passage that we’re looking at this morning, where we read that When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Now, remember that ‘tradition’ I was talking about earlier?

I said there was a Tradition that held there were no fewer than 613 laws to follow contained in the Torah…

I also said how there was a Tradition that maintained and supported an atmosphere of vigorous debate on all issues relating to “The Law”?

Well, this Tradition isn’t just a generic term like we tend to think, and there was more to this Lawyer’s question than what we might think.

–See, back in the day, there was a Jewish rabbi, his name was Rabbi Hillel.

Some people think Jesus was possibly a student of Rabbi Hillel, because some of the things Jesus taught sound like things that Rabbi Hillel taught…for example, when Jesus taught “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”…Rabbi Hillel taught “do not do anything to your neighbor that you would not like to have done to you.”

Rabbi Hillel was very influential back in his day.

In fact, there were two main schools of thought in the first century…or two ‘traditions’ that were really popular.

One was the school of Hillel, and one was the school of Shammai.

Shammai was also a rabbi around the same time…They were both really smart guys, but Shammai was a little more strict, and a little more literal in his approach to the Torah, where Hillel was maybe a little less concerned with being literal and a little more concerned with how people treat each other.

Their lives overlapped somewhat, but they sharply disagreed on a number of things as far as observing the law.

One story that illustrates how they differed on their interpretation of the law goes like this.

There was a pagan man who came up to rabbi Shammai one day, and he mockingly told him that if Shammai could tell him the whole Torah (that is, the first five books of the Bible), if he could recite it to him while standing on one leg, he would convert to Judaism.

(Reciting it wouldn’t have been the challenge; actually, many if not most Jewish children at the time could recite the whole Torah by the time they were 12…that’s a fact I’ve found again and again, but it never gets easier to believe) 🙂 It was reciting it while standing on one foot that would have posed the problem.

Of course Shammai, being the literalist and the strict rabbi that he was, he dismissed the man in anger and disgust.

The same Pagan man went to Rabbi Hillel and offered the same challenge.

“If you can recite the Torah while standing on one leg, I will convert to Judaism.”

It is said that Rabbi Hillel stood on one leg and said “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

It’s kind of a cool story, right?

It kind of sums up these two traditions, these two ways of relating to the Pagan world.

So when this lawyer puts this question to Jesus…there are a couple of things going on.

For one, he probably is really, sincerely interested in having a discussion about which commandment might be the greatest according to Jesus.

He might really want to get into the kind of argument that was so popular, to test this rabbi according to ‘tradition!’

On the other hand, maybe he was fishing to see which ‘school’ Jesus followed.

Hillel, or Shammai?

Which camp would Jesus fall in?

“Teacher” he says, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

Would Jesus write him off and send him packing like Shammai?

Or would he answer as Hillel did; with creativity and depth and a playful invitation to learn and experience more of this ‘tradition’?

Of course, we know the rest of the story.

Jesus answers, with not just one commandment like the guy asked for, but he answers by pairing together two commandments that had never been paired in that way before.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

This is a commandment found in Deuteronomy 6:4, and it’s a passage that’s still really really important in Judaism.

He starts there, with a scripture that the people there would have been receiving with their mother’s milk, so to speak. The equivalent verse in Christianity might be John 3:16…a verse that most of us would instantly recognize as central to our relationship with God.

So when Jesus gives this answer, everyone would have nodded, knowing not only the verse, but the whole chapter where it’s found in that part of the Torah.

Tradition can indeed be a powerful thing.

But then Jesus goes on and takes a relatively obscure verse from Leviticus, and names it as the second most important commandment in all of Torah!

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

“On these two commandments”, he says “hang all the law and the prophets”.

This wild-eyed rabbi is taking a pretty radical step.

He’s basically taking all 613 commandments, and he’s saying that they can all be interpreted through this formula…Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself.

We officiated a wedding yesterday…as many of you know, Jacob Conrad and Emily Ling got married yesterday.

And as we were preparing for the wedding, I got to thinking about ‘love’.

And I was reminded again that ‘love’ is a pretty generic term, isn’t it?

When Jesus tells this Pharisee to “Love God and Love your neighbor”…it’s not easy to know what that means.

That might be one reason the Pharisees preferred debating all the laws and all the rules they had put in place…because rules make it pretty easy to know if you’ve kept them or not.

But “Love” is a little trickier rule to live by.

Now, the main reason we gather together like this every Sunday, is because we are members of this new tradition that Jesus started. We want to know what it looks like, to love God with all our heart and all our mind and all our strength, and we want to know how to love our neighbors as ourselves.

We need help putting our beliefs into practice, and church is the best place on earth to find others who are willing and able to help us do that.

So I’d like to offer an invitation this morning, first, if this whole Jesus-thing is new to you and you’d like to hear more about it, feel free to ask around about it. This is a church full of people who are trying to learn and grow in it the same as anyone else.

The second part of my invitation is for those of us who have been coming here for awhile; think about your own walk with Christ, and think about the points where you have your own questions…where you’re not sure what ‘love’ might look like.

This is a place to get some feedback. Is there anyone here you could talk to about it?

After the service I invite you to make that connection.



Comments are closed.