The Greatest Commandment

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

What to do with this educator’s commentary

This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’

This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.

Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of the reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.

In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.

Structure of the commentary:

The world behind the text

The world of Matthew’s community

Questions for the teacher

The world of the text

Text & textual features

Characters & setting

Ideas / phrases / concepts

Questions for the teacher

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher

Meaning for today / challenges

Church interpretations & usage

The World Behind the Text

There are two ‘worlds’ behind the text: the world that produced it and the world of the time in which it is set. For more information on Matthew go here.

The World of the Text

Text and textual features

In Matthew’s retelling of this story, the Pharisees are trying to test him. Luke has Jesus being questioned by a lawyer and Mark, a friendly scribe. This narrative reminds us that Jesus lived as a Jewish man and knew the Jewish rituals and traditions. The instruction, that You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, is called the Shema and is found in Deuteronomy 6:5. It is a prayer Jesus would have known and prayed several times, every day. It is also found in the Tefillin (small black prayer ‘boxes’) that Jews wear. 

Jesus goes beyond the original prayer though and situates this original commandment alongside ‘a second like it’ (v. 39) “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19:18). In this teaching moment, Jesus distils the teaching of the Torah into two simple commandments.  This was not the normal practice at the time. The use of the word ‘love’ in the teaching commandments of Jesus has already happened twice in Matthew’s Gospel. In unifying the commandment to love God with all one’s heart and soul, with loving one’s neighbour as yourself, Jesus indicates that this second action, is indicative of the first.  Loving one’s neighbour as oneself demonstrates love of God. 

Whilst Jesus focusses on these two messages as a combination, there is no indication that the other 611 teachings of the Torah have been lessened, but in fact, “on these two commandments hang the law and the prophets.” Harrington tells us:

Jesus’ love-commandment goes to the root of things and provides
a coherent principle for appreciating and observing the other

Sacra Pagina, p. 316

Characters & Setting


Matthew makes it clear that the Pharisees, teachers of the law, are not coming to chat with Jesus, rather to test him. Jesus has previously ‘silenced the Sadducees’ in the previous text, now attention turns to the Pharisees to take over the testing. 

We need to be attentive to the conflict within Matthew’s community about the nature and status of Jesus, something that finds its way back into his writing. 

There is little to suggest that the apparent hatred and vitriol that Matthew often uses to speak of the Jewish leaders was actually present in the lifetime of Jesus. It seems to develop more in the years around Matthew’s writing, as Jesus grapples with the questions of Jesus’ identity: is he the Messiah or not?

Questions for the teacher

How does the information assist you in understanding the text? What else do you need to know?
What do the students already know about the world behind the text? What else might the students need to know? What could be some questions the students might ask?

Questions for the teacher:

What is the text saying? What am I wondering about the text?
How can you enable your students to engage with the actual text? What might they wonder about?
What of this information is important to share with the students?

The world in front of the text

Questions for the teacher:

Please reflect on these questions before reading this section and then use the material below to enrich your responsiveness to the text.

How do you respond to the text?
What does the text tell us about the world that God desires? What might the Holy Spirit be asking you and asking us to do?
In what ways do you hope your students will respond to the text? What do you want them to know, believe and do?

Meaning for today/challenges

Hollywood gives us a version of love that is grand, dramatic, all consuming and perfect. The love that Jesus invites us to – is one in which God wants us to love as God has loved us – graciously, compassionately, kindly, gently, humbly, patiently, justly, selflessly and freely. This is an invitation to love others with all of one’s being. We see this in healthcare workers caring for the sick, in parents and grandparents with their children and in those who give with no thought of the cost for themselves. 

The famous saying “do unto others as yourself” could be applied to this text.  But what does this look like in our everyday life? It is speaking gently and kindly, even when we are tired and frustrated. It is allowing others to make choices for themselves, it is welcoming parents into our classrooms and it is sharing our resources with those in need. Loving one’s neighbour as oneself is being present and really listening to others. How we do this will not look the same for each person. 

Critically for us today, what this passage reminds us, is that the way in which we love others is reflective of our relationship with God. As a reader, it invites us to deeply consider this relationship and how we nurture it. Do we make time for God?

When we work with our students in considering this text the final question, in what ways do you hope your students respond to this text, is a critical one.  For our junior students we might hope to give them guidance on interacting with each other and for our senior students, we might leave them with this question as an action for their own life as they move beyond Catholic school and out into the bigger world.

Catholic Education Brisbane offers some further considerations of how this text impacts how we interact with other religious traditions here.

Church interpretation & usage

This Scripture was the subject of a homily by Pope Francis. You can read it here.

Liturgical usage

This text is used on the 30th Sunday of Year A.  It is the culmination of a series of Sunday Gospels where Jesus is in conflict with Jewish leaders who are out to destroy him. Each time, Jesus rises to the challenge.