There is a pattern that becomes evident in a series of questions posed to Jesus the week before his crucifixion. It is recorded that different people approached Jesus to ask him questions that they supposed would set him up to misspeak.
“Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” The person who asked the question no doubt wanted a yes or no answer and, in that desire, hoped Jesus would give the wrong answer—and so they would have grounds to condemn him. But Jesus answers the question in a rather unexpected way.
“Whose wife will this woman be in the resurrection?” A man posed a scenario in which a woman had had several husbands in her life but no children. The specific scenario was a set-up, however, designed to distract Jesus on incidentals while trapping him in the question’s presupposition: that there is, in fact, such a thing as “a resurrection.” The question-asker did not believe in any kind of resurrection. Jesus answers him in a rather unexpected way.
“What is the greatest commandment?” This question does not seem like a “trap” to us, but it is. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had inherited, in fact, a catalogue that encompassed more than the now-famous Ten Commandments. They had articulated no fewer than 248 affirmative precepts and 365 negative precepts--for a grand total of 613 precepts they were expected to carry out.
The affirmative precepts were commandments in which they were expected to “do” something. For example, “honor your father and mother” is an affirmative precept. It is something that, if omitted, harms self and others.
The negative precepts were commandments in which they were expected to “refrain” from something. For example, “do not murder.” It is something that, if committed, harms self and others.
These two types of “sin” have also been called "sins of omission” and "sins of commission.”
The numbers of each type of sin in this catalogue are equally encompassing. The number 248 was significant to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day because, it was believed, the same number was used to enumerate the parts of the human body.
The number 365, in a similar fashion, was used to enumerate the number of days in the calendar year.
The two numbers totaled together made the sum of 613. This number was significant because it was the same number of letters in the great Ten Commandments.
The hidden message? “You better make sure you obey every letter of every law with every fiber of your body every day of every year. If not, look out!”
Is it any wonder such a question as “which commandment is the greatest” appeared to those present as a trap? How does one go about answering such a question in such an environment?
“Perhaps,” we may surmise, “it would be logical to at least narrow the answer down to the great list of Ten Commandments. And, perhaps, if that is wise, it would be logical to narrow it down to the commandment that was regarded as first in that list: ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’”
The question that may be asked then is: “How does one distinguish between the first and second commandment which instructs, ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol.’?” Indeed, such a commandment seems to represent the practical side of the first commandment. As such, it too may be regarded as most important--for the commandments are intended to be practiced and followed.
And why not choose the third commandment? For if we keep the very name of YHWH holy we worship him according to the honor due him.
Or, how about the fourth commandment? “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Even this commandment alone set the Jewish people apart from all other people. This unique observance literally made them holy, it was believed.
I submit that, likely, most listeners that heard the question that was publicly posed to Jesus fixated on the first four commandments. Likely, they thought themselves wise and discerning, narrowing such an answer down to four possibilities out of a list of 613 possibilities.
And Jesus astounds them by going “off the charts”—literally.
The question I ask myself now is: “Why do I content myself with going back to the charts, if Jesus, whom I call my Lord, leads me off the charts into freedom, real freedom, audacious freedom—freedom that even death cannot master.”
“Love,” he says. “Just love.”
Let us cease our penchant for straining gnats, for YHWH himself broke the third commandment by taking a name common to a small nation ruled by the Romans. And YHWH, the God who rested on the seventh day, later worked on the seventh day, breaking the fourth commandment. In taking on human flesh, he risked causing his followers to break the second commandment and he knew that, without love, it is impossible to keep the first commandment.
But, in love, it is impossible to break it.
Let us keep the new commandment: to love, just love. Let us keep it every day of every year with every fiber of our being. And let us keep it as if it is the only commandment we need remember. For, indeed, it is.