by Lois Tverberg
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31
Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws potentially conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow. For instance, the command to circumcise on the eighth day took precedence over the Sabbath (Jn 7:22). This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and observing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light” (kal) and “heavy” (hamur) in relationship to each other. 1
Jesus was likely using this terminology when he spoke about the “least of the commandments” in Matthew 5:19, referencing the laws that had lower precedence compared to others. Also, in Matthew 23:23, Jesus chides the religious leaders for neglecting the “weightier” matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness, while being careful to tithe each spice, a less important law.
The idea of “weighing” the laws of the Torah was likely the rationale for the question, “Of all the commands, which is most important?” (Mark 12:28-30) The lawyer was asking, “What is our ultimate priority as we try to obey God?” Jesus’ answer was to quote two laws found in the Torah, from Deuteronomy 6:14 (love God) and Leviticus 19:18 (love your neighbor). About 100 years later, Rabbi Akiva said essentially the same thing a different way: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself —this is the great principle (*clal gadol*) of the Torah.” 2
This is a very wise word as we discern what to do when two commands conflict with each other. If you must choose one over the other, choose the one that shows the most love. If you have a worship meeting one evening, but a sick friend needs you to visit during the same time, the friend should take priority. If you don’t do yard work on Sunday (or Saturday) but your elderly neighbor really needs her lawn mowed, and its the only day you can help, you should do it then. Jesus himself would probably do the same thing in your situation, and indeed, he is using you to do it.
The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Gal 5:14
To explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.
1 For more on “light and heavy” in regards to the law, see New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin, pp. 96-98.
2 Sifra 89b; a comment on Lev. 19:18. Sifra is a very early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus.