NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
There is a story told by the Jewish fathers about a woman whose husband dedicated his life to the reading and studying of God’s Word. But he died suddenly in middle age. So she made the rounds visiting synagogues and study houses asking all the Sages and Rabbis: “My husband studied much Scripture and studied much Mishnah and listened to many scholars. Why did he die in middle age?” We are then told: “There was not one person who could answer her.”1 Apparently, this woman was taught that constant reading of Scripture would guarantee a long and healthy life. So in other words, she wanted to know what law did he miss or what law did he not obey that cost him his life so early? They had no answer because the One who both gives and takes life did not consider how much time this individual spent in reading and studying the Scriptures as having any influence on when a person dies. Therefore, one’s hope for everlasting life cannot depend solely upon what an individual does, but what on an individual believes.
From what Matthew tells us, the Pharisees were so impressed by Jesus’ knowledge and interpretation of the Torah that they were curious to find out what He believed to be the most significant law to be observed. On the other hand, they may have already made up their minds and wanted to see if He agreed or disagreed with them. They knew one answer that their Rabbis taught: “By observing the Sabbath as a day of rest as prescribed by the Torah, we testify to our belief in God as the Creator of the Universe, and as the only legitimate Lawgiver.”2 This led many religious teachers to proclaim: “He who keeps the Sabbath is as if he kept the whole law.”3 But Jesus will take them in another direction:
Verses 37-38: Jesus answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and most important commandment.”
When Mark recorded this incident, he notes that Jesus followed a Jewish custom of first quoting the “Shema,” which goes: “Hear, Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.”4 One esteemed Jewish scholar suggests that this mantra be paraphrased as follows: “Hear, O Israel the words of the Torah and its commandment, for then you will immediately realize how the LORD is our God, possessing absolute power, being the Creator who had created all existence. You will then also realize that He is our God and has displayed His might and many-faceted abilities by means of His people, by means of us the Israelites. He has done nothing like it for any of the other nations. It follows that we more than any other nation are obligated to Him.”5
Matthew has our Lord beginning His quote from Deuteronomy 6:5. One Jewish Version reads: “Love ADONAI your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources,”6 while another translates it: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”7 The Greek Septuagint has: “heart, soul, and power.” One early Jewish theologian expressed his insight into this commandment by saying: “You will fear the Lord your God, and serve before Him, and swear by His Name. You shall not go after the idols of the Gentiles, the idols of the peoples who surround you (for the Lord your God is a jealous God, His Shekinah dwells among you.)”8 In other words, by giving the Lord all of our heart, soul, and mind, nothing is left over for the idols and gods of this world.
We see this also in the exposition of another Jewish scholar who remarks on the meaning of the words: “And you will love [the Lord].” It means: “Perform His commandments out of love. The one who acts out of love cannot be compared to the one who acts out of fear. If one serves his master out of fear, when the master sets a great burden upon him, this servant will leave him and go away [whereas if out of love he will serve him even under great burden]; with all your heart suggests: Love Him with your two inclinations [the good and the evil]. Another explanation; ‘with all your heart,’ is that your heart should not be divided [i.e., at variance] with the Omnipresent; with all your soul: Even if He takes your soul, and with all your means: with all your possessions. There are people whose possessions are more precious to them than their own bodies. Therefore, it says, ‘and with all your means.’ Another explanation is: You shall love God with whatever measure He metes out to you, whether it be the measure of good or the measure of retribution. Thus also did David say: ‘I will lift up the cup of salvation [and I will call upon the name of the Lord];’9 ‘I found trouble and grief [and I called out in the name of the Lord]‘10.”11
According to Jewish verbal teachings, the Rabbis also explain: “With all your heart” means with your two impulses — the evil impulse, as well as the good impulse [i.e., those physical functions which may be used for sin, should also be harnessed for the service of God] “With all your soul” means even though he takes your soul [life], “With all your means” i.e., with all your money. Another explanation is with whatever measure He metes out to you [whether bad or good], still you must thank Him very, very much.”12 Another Jewish writer adds this: “Moses the prophet said to the people of the house of Israel, Follow after the true worship of your fathers, that you may love the Lord your God with each disposition of your hearts, and also that He may accept your souls and the (dedicated) service of all your wealth.”13 So Jesus was not far afield from what the brightest and most intelligent Jewish teachers were saying.
One well-known Jewish commentary puts it this way: “Moses suggests that the people learn to love God as anyone performing God’s commandments out of a sense of love for Him and His Kindness will automatically not make himself and his family the center of his concerns, but will cleave to his Creator.”14 In other words, keeping the Sabbath focuses on mans’ virtues, while loving God with one’s whole being puts the emphasis on God’s virtues. But our Lord is not through:
Verse 39: “And the second command is like the first: ‘Love your neighbor the same as you love yourself.’”
Now the focus is on mankind’s virtues and ethics. Here our Lord quotes from Leviticus 19:18. In Luke’s version of this incident, someone asks Jesus to define neighbor, and Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan.15 So we know that this was already in our Lord’s mind, that the word “neighbor” did not just mean the individual next door. It was already part of the verbal law, as it says: “The following are the things for which a man enjoys the fruits in this world, while the principal [reward is not diminished and] remains for him in the World To Come: honoring one’s father and mother, practicing charity and making peace between man and his neighbor, but the study of Torah is equal to all of them.”16
Origen adds his thoughts to what our Lord lists as the second great commandment: “The Lord Himself responds to them and teaches us. Not only is the greatest commandment to love the Lord, but as well it is the first commandment. It is first, however, not in the order of the Scriptures but in the order of virtue. And as this comes from such a source, it must be adhered to, since as with many established commands, Christ says that it is the first and greatest command that ‘you love the Lord your God with your whole heart and your whole mind and your whole soul,’ and the second, however, ‘is like unto’ the first; and accordingly, this similitude is also great, ‘that you love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ This is how we understand the second one, while another may be third in magnitude and order, or a fourth, and so in order we number the commands of the law, accepting this as wisdom from God, who orders them even to the least. Such is the task of no one else but Christ alone since He is ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God.’17”18
Bishop Cyril of Alexandria draws this conclusion: “Therefore, the first commandment teaches every kind of godliness. For to love God with the whole heart is the cause of every good. The second commandment includes the righteous acts we do toward other people. The first commandment prepares the way for the second and in turn is established by the second. For the person who is grounded in the love of God clearly also loves his neighbor in all things himself. The kind of person who fulfills these two commandments experiences all the commandments.”19
From this, we can conclude, that what Jesus is pointing out with this two-fold commandment is that no true believer can adhere to one without adhering to the other. In other words, it is impossible to love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and not love their neighbor as themselves. Likewise, to love one’s neighbor as themselves is another way of loving God wholeheartedly. So the real question for us today is: Why are so many who call themselves children of God living a double life by claiming adherence to the one commandment but not practicing the other?
1 The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, Ch. 2, pp. 16-17
2 Tzror Hamor, op. cit. Exodus 20:8-11 Yitro, p. 1055
3 John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible Commentary (Quoting from Zohar in Exodus, folio 37a)
4 Deuteronomy 6:4
5 Tzror Hamor, op. cit., Deuteronomy 6:4 – Vaetchanan, p. 1824
6 Complete Jewish Bible, loc. cit.
7 Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, Jewish Publication Society, Jerusalem, 1985, loc. cit.
8 The Targum of Onkelos on the Sepher Elleh Haddebarim or Book of Deuteronomy, loc. cit.
9 Psalm 116:12-13
10 Ibid. 3-4
11 Rashi’s Commentary, The Complete Jewish Bible, loc. cit.
12 Mishnah, First Division: Berakhot, Ch. 9:5
13 Targum of Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch, Section XLV Vaethchanan, loc. cit., pp. 569-583
14 Rabbi Abraham Saba, Tzror Hamor, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 1834
15 Luke 10:27ff
16 Mishnah, op. cit. First Division: Tractate Peah, Ch. 1:1
17 1 Corinthians 1:24
18 Origen, ibid.
19 Cyril of Alexandria: Commentary fragment 251