The Greatest Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40)

Opening Prayer

Christ, Lover of humanity, 
Make the pure light of your divine knowledge shine in our hearts, opening the eyes of our mind to understand the message of your Gospel.
For you are the illumination of our souls and bodies, and to you we give glory, together with your Father and life-giving Spirit.


After hearing about Christ putting the Sadducees to shame, the Pharisees bring one of their lawyers forward ‘out of immeasurable spite’ (St John Chrysostum) in order to question and test Him, hoping to ‘accuse Him of being an innovator who corrects the law’ (St Theophylact of Ohrid). The Lord however, ‘discloses their malice, and because they come not to learn, but rather, devoid of love, to show their envy and their spite, He reveals to them the exceedingly great love expressed by the commandments.’ (Ibid). Christ instantly reveals to them the painful reality that the law is simply meaningless if its consequence and centre is not love.
The Pharisees, like many of us who obsess over rules and judge others, are rightly put in their place. Jesus explains to them that the law which they assumed they completely understood, is far from the true purpose of the Law established by God and His Prophets. Rather than being an external, regimented, dry list of rules, the Lord emphasises that they are commandments centred on loving God and our neighbour.
We are told that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our being. ‘We ought not to love God partially, but to give all of ourselves to God…one must attend to Him with all the parts and powers of one’s soul’ (Ibid). Love for God and neighbour is not simply emotion, or a gesture of good will; but rather our very own κένωσις (self-emptying and sacrifice), taking on the role of a servant, putting ourselves last and others first.
St Theophylact, commenting on this passage, interestingly tells us that there are two great challenges in the Christian life: ‘Lest we fall into unholy doctrines, we must love God; so that we do not lead a corrupt life, we must love our neighbour (Levit 19:18). For he who loves his neighbour fulfils all the commandments, and he who fulfils all the commandments, loves God.’ Therefore the two commandments are very much connected and inseparable, together leading us to spiritual growth, and communion with God and our fellow human beings. ‘Whoever says “I love God” and hates his brother is a liar,’ (1 John 4:8) writes St John the Evangelist.


The Orthodox Church reminds us of the connection between love and the Holy Trinity in the Eucharist liturgy: ‘Let us love one another that with one mind we may confess: Father Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided.’ As Christians, we believe in the one Triune God, ‘who is Love’ (1 John 4:8), but how can these two truths about our Creator be connected? God is love because He is Trinity; Three Persons in one Godhead, in an eternal relationship of love. As Christians, we are called to acquire this relationship of love and unity, found in the Holy Trinity. This passage of scripture reminds us of our calling to unite with God and our fellows in communion.
Although the Pharisee’s motives are clearly distorted and impure, after hearing Christ’s reply and realising He is indeed the Saviour, fulfiller of the law (Matt 5:17), and our very God, he amends his ways and experiences the Lord’s forgiveness. Let this therefore be a reminder that love is nothing less than the very presence of our personal, forgiving, Triune God, and that, if we centre our lives, relations, struggles and tests on His everlasting love, we will be fulfilling His greatest commandments.

Discussion Questions

  • How do our relationships with our fellows reflect our relationship with God?
  • Though God’s existence and presence is felt and found in many places, is love fundamentally the greatest sign and example of our Creator’s presence and will?
  • What does it mean to love God with all our heart, soul and mind?
  • ‘Love hurts’ - why? Perhaps because love is the truth, and the truth can be difficult to accept?

Closing Prayer

Lover of the whole world,
Thank you for feeding us with your presence and divine Love.

Further Reading

  • St John Chrysostom, Homily 71 on Matthew
  • St Theophylact of Ohrid, on the Gospel according to St Matthew

This resource was written by Alexis Floredis, President of the University of Edinburgh Orthodox Society and recent graduate in Theology at Edinburgh.

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Resource type: 
Bible Study
Resource theme: 
The Bible
Encountering God