Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Since the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Pharisees had been trying to play “gotcha” with Jesus, and here once again, they hoped they would get Him. They tried to corner Jesus by making Him settle on an oft-disputed question: What is the greatest commandment in the Law?
But that’s a bit like asking, “What’s the most important doctrine in the Christian faith?” In fact, many play with this very question all the time as they consider our relations with other Christians. They’ll say, “What is the most important thing? Isn’t it that we all believe that Jesus is Lord?”
Typically, Christians will say that belief in Jesus as Lord is the most important teaching. Differences over the Lord’s Supper, Holy Baptism, the office of the ministry, even the doctrine of the Holy Trinity…these are all but trifles. The most important thing you must believe is that Jesus is Lord.
This falls into the Pharisee’s trap. It’s the lawyerly way of thinking.
Jesus shatters the very premise that any of the teachings of the Law have rankings, or by implication, that Christian teaching should have rankings. Notice, where the Pharisees asked for one law which topped all others, Jesus doesn’t fall for their trap. He teaches the whole Law in two simple teachings: Love God and love your neighbor. That’s the whole Law and Prophets.
It all boils down to love. Love of God and love of neighbor. Love sums up the Law. As both St. Paul and St. James say, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
With this teaching, Jesus disarms the Pharisees’ ranking system, and He also disarms all any attempt to rank what is most important in Christian doctrine. If one truly loves God, after all, how can this allow one to rate His teachings on a scale of least important to most important? Which exactly are God’s “least important” teachings?
The Pharisee’s ranking game speaks to a certain idolatry going on, the projection of some criterion onto the Lord’s Word which serves as the basis for determining “least important” teachings. Where do those criterion arise but from the human mind? And what do those criterion reflect but some sort of desire on the part of man?
If, say, one had a mind which was boastful, he might cherish a criterion that propped up the laws which could be used to look down upon the leper or the Gentile. If one took pride in the office of the ministry, he might prop up the laws about priests. A moralist or one who takes pride in his own righteousness would of course prop up the moral teachings of the law.
Jesus doesn’t play this game. Every jot and tittle of the Law, as He said, is important and should be taught. It should be taught as fulfilled in Him, but that doesn’t take away from the supreme importance of every single teaching of the Law. So also with Christian doctrine. We don’t skip over the inconvenient parts of Scripture on our way to the cross, or to forgiveness, or to the resurrection, because these are the “most important” teachings of Jesus.
And we don’t apply a criterion onto the Gospel in order to determine “what really matters.” Now, this isn’t to say that Jesus Himself doesn’t apply teachings which is the center of gravity exerting a gravitational pull on other teachings. Certainly He does that here with love – love summarizes the commandments.
Likewise, when it comes to the teachings of the Gospel, clearly love continues to have that gravitational pull, a love manifest in the Father’s love for us in Christ, in His cross, and in His last supper. But to have a gravitational pull is not the same thing as to declare which teachings are “important” and which ones are not, as so often happens, particularly in the ecumenical movement but also in the hearts and minds of the faithful, as they determine which doctrines they can tolerate from a heterodox church in order to justify attendance there for some reason.
Ironically many will cite “love” as their reason for doing so. Doesn’t love trump doctrinal strictness? No, says Jesus. Love summarizes all teaching of the Law, and of the Gospel. And true love of the Lord would never dismiss what He says as irrelevant. That’s more like…well, not love.