Home      Back to Trinity 18

 

 

 

 

The Greatest and First Commandment
Origen, Priest and Confessor
Translated by M.F. Toale, D.D.
(PG XIII, col.1599, Series Comment. in Matthaeum, xxii. 34-7. 
A searching study of the precept of the love of God; more suited to meditation than exposition.)
1.  When our Lord answered the Sadducees, who would not hear of the resurrection, by proving it to them from the testimony of the Law, Matthew tells us that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, willing to show us by this that the brightness of truth will ever put to silence the bitter and injurious voice of falsehood. As our Saviour by His teaching reduced the Sadducees to silence, showing them with divine authority that their belief was false, so will the followers of Christ ever do the same from the Scriptures, before which, in accord with all sound learning, every voice of Pharaoh must be dumb: that voice in which, glorying in himself, he said, The river is mine, and I made it, as is written in Ezechiel (Ezech. xxix. 9).

The Sadducees therefore, who said there was no resurrection, questioned the Saviour about things that were written; thinking to put Him to silence. But neither Jesus nor His Disciples are at any time ever obstructed by the impious. It was fitting therefore that the Sadducees should be put to silence by Christ. For a just man will be silent, knowing that there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak (Eccles. iii. 7); yet he is not dumb. And while a just man will keep silence, though he is not dumb, it is ever the way of Sadducees and of all who teach falsehood to be dumb, but not to keep silence: For though dumb with respect to the truth, they will nevertheless not be silent. So it was not to man, but to the sea, the Lord said: Peace, be still; rebuking it when it was stormy.

But now the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection, hearing Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, come together; they come together when the truth of the resurrection has triumphed, who had not come together until the Sadducees were silenced. But though they came together because the proof of the resurrection had prevailed, nevertheless, one of them questioned Him, not as wishing to learn from Him what he was asking, but as tempting the Lord God. Everyone therefore who questions any bishop or teacher on any article of faith, and questions him, not with a mind to learn, but in order to trip him up, is to be regarded as a brother of this Pharisee who sought by his question to tempt the Saviour. For all that is done to the holy servants of Christ, whether by those who love them, or by those who are their enemies, He takes wholly to Himself: for we must consider what is not written in the Scriptures in the light of what was written. For the sake of those who hunger and thirst it was written: I was hungry; and, I was thirsty.  And, because of the naked and of those who are strangers, because of the sick, and those who are in prison: I was naked; and, I was a stranger; and, I was sick, and, I was in prison. And to this we may also add: I suffered afflictions, I was beaten, I was tempted, and all such things. And as, in the things which are written in the Scriptures, the words of the Lord truly apply, where He says: As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, so when the just man suffers persecution, when evil is spoken of him, or when he suffers anything of this kind, set Christ in the midst of those who do this injury; saying to them: When you do an injury to one of the least of these, it is Me you have assailed, it is against Me you have spoken evil.

2. Let us now consider the proposition of the tempter. Master, he says, which is the great commandment in the law? He calls Him, Master, tempting Him; for it was not as a disciple of Christ he spoke these words. This will be clearer from an example we shall give you. Let us, for instance, say that a father is the father of his son, and no one can rightly call him father save his son. And a mother is the mother of her own daughter, and no one can call her mother except her own daugh-ter. So a master is the master of his own pupil or disciple, and a disciple is the pupil of his own master. Therefore, no one can rightly say to him, Master, except his own disciple. So you see that it was because of this, that not all who call Him Master, speak truthfully, but only those who are of a mind to learn from Him, that He said to His Disciples: You call me Master, and Lord: and you say well; for so I am (Jn. xiii. 13). Rightly therefore do the Disciples of Christ call Him Master; and when keeping His word rightly do they call Him Lord. And for this reason rightly also did the Apostle declare: Yet to us there is but one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him (I Cor. viii. 6). And remember that other saying of our Lord, in which He tells us: It is enough for the disciple that he be, not simply, as the master but: as his master (Mt. x. 25).

If there is anyone therefore who does not learn from the Word, and does not submit himself to Him with his whole soul, that he may become His loved plant (Mt. xv. 13), yet presumes to call Him: Master, he is brother to that Pharisee who came tempting Christ, and calling Him Master. And everyone who says: Our Father who art in heaven, should not possess the spirit of bondage in fear, but the spirit of adoption of sons (Rom. viii. 15). He however who has not the spirit of adoption of sons, and yet says: Our Father who art in heaven, lies; since he calls God his Father, when he is not a son of God.

But this is the question: Which is the great commandment in the law?  And at this point it is fitting that we explain to you something of the difference between commandments. For some are great, and some are derived from them. So we must examine them as to their order, down to the least. For if the Lord had not answered the Pharisee who came tempting Him and saying: Which is the great commandment in the law, we would not then think that one commandment was greater than another. But now, since He has answered him, and has said: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment, we have learned the judgement we needed to know concerning the commandments: That there are chief commandments, and there are lesser ones, down to the least.

Consider again what it was the Pharisee asked: Which is the great commandment in the law? The Lord in answering him teaches us that not only is the commandment to love God the greatest, but that it is also the first: First, not in the Scriptural order, but in the excellence of its virtue. And here is a fitting place to note, that though it is made up as it were of many commandments, as it stands it is now, He said, the greatest and first commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. The second is like the first and, because of its likeness, also great: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; so that following this we may understand that there is another which is third in order and greatness, and another which is fourth; and so numbering the precepts of the law in their order, and receiving wisdom from God, one may order each one down to the least: And this is the work of Christ alone, Who is the power of God and the wisdom of God (I Cor. i. 24).

And so from the time of Moses till the coming of the Saviour, it is probable that when the law was
being read this question was asked: Which of these is the greatest commandment? For the Pharisee would not have asked it, had an answer not been sought, and not found, until Jesus coming taught not only which was the greatest and also the first; and that the second was like the first. It was the Phariseeís own task then to find out which was third, fourth and so on. Supposing you asked whether there was a commandment which had not both these attributes: greatest and first; hut only one of them, I believe you will find that Paul speaks of such a commandment, to the Ephesians.
Honour thy father, he says, and thy mother, which is the first commandment with a promise; that it may be well with thee, and thou mayest be long-lived upon the earth (vv. 2, 3). Here then is a first commandment; yet not a great one: Honour thy father and thy mother.

And if there is some commandment great, yet not a first, you will ask how they compare in greatness. Since in comparing them some will be least, it is useful to recall an example our Lord Himself gave. He therefore, He says, that shall break one of these least commandments, and shall so teach men, shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. v. 19).  And the Saviour answering the Pharisee tempting Him, and laying down which was the first and great commandment, and adding that the second was like it, namely: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, added this saying: On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.

The Apostle however says to the Romans: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. And, if there be any other commandment, it is comprised in this word: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (xiii. 9). Let us see then if it is the same to say that the whole law and the prophets depend on the two commandments of the love of God and our neighbour, as to say that every commandment is summed up in the commandment: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, or that all the commandments both depend on and are summed up in either commandment.

Someone then says: The commandments depend one from the other, the second from the first and greatest; the third from the second, and so on; all after the second depending from the one preceding; and that the Apostle said, in view of its end, every commandment depends on this: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself; but that the Saviour taught that these two commandments govern all the rest. Another will ask how it was said that: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. And, if there be any other commandment, it is comprised in this word: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Therefore, he will say, that first commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, etc., is also comprised in this commandment: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself  How can what the Apostle said be true: And, if there be any other commandment, etc., unless the first commandment regarding the love of God is comprised in the second, which is like the first?

And if the first is comprised in the second, then the second must be greater than the first. Every commandment then, even the first and greatest, is comprised in this second: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, for loving ourselves, we also love God the Author of our love, so that we are able to love one another and are loved by one another. For giving thanks that we are rational beings, and called to the knowledge of God, and that we receive His grace and blessings, we include the love of God in the second and like commandment.

The first therefore and greatest commandment of the law is: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with thy whole mind. And he takes something from its primacy and greatness who subtracts anything from the entirety of this commandment; that is, either from that part which says: With thy whole heart, or from: With thy whole soul, or from:
With thy whole mind. And it may well be that all they who love God and their Lord fulfil this commandment in part only, unless they fulfil it in all respects and love Him with their whole heart and with their soul and with their whole mind. They alone accept within themselves its greatness and primacy who not only love the Lord their God, but have also taken it upon themselves to fulfil these three conditions; namely, that with their whole heart they hold within themselves the fulness of this love, and its thoughts and actions; and with their whole soul, that is, ready to lay it down for the service of God Who created all things, whenever the profit of His Word demands it: for God is loved with thy whole soul, when no part of the soul is seized by anything that is out of keeping with the faith; and with their whole mind thinking and speaking of nothing else but the things of God.

And see if you can put understanding for heart: the intellect which searches into intelligible things; showing their source and beginning, which is God: it being the mindís task to give them utterance. For it is by the mind we give utterance to each single thing, and by it we as it were consider within us by means of each thing made known to it, and give it utterance. And if anyone understands acutely this commandment of love in the light of these three conditions we have spoken of, and reflects upon the love of God as it exists in each one of the faithful, he will find the whole commandment fulfilled in one perhaps, or in two, or in a third. And should all be considered under this aspect, the love of God will be found wanting in them, or present among them but more or less, and this because the commandment says, with thy whole heart, or because it says, with thy whole soul, or, with thy whole mind.

3.  The second commandment is like the first, since it commands the love of man, made in the image of God, and perhaps also in His likeness. In the exposition of the command to love our neighbour, these things must also be learned. Since in accord with what is said in the tenth psalm, He that loveth iniquity, hateth his own soul, and in accord with what is said in Proverbs, He that rejecteth instruction, despiseth his own soul, it is evident, that no one who loves iniquity loves his neighbour as himself, since neither does he love himself; and that no one who rejects instruction, loves his neighbour as himself; since he does not even love his own self. And so it comes about that he who loves iniquity, both hates his own soul, and is unable to fulfil the second commandment. And in the same way whoever rejects instruction loves sin: and so he who rejects any word of the teaching of God, hates his own soul.

4.  After this you will ask how the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments? For the text seems to indicate to us that everything that was written, either in the Book of Exodus, or Leviticus, or in Numbers or Deuteronomy, depend on these two commandments. But how does the law concerning leprosy, or those suffering an issue of blood, or menstruation, depend on these two commandments? How again does the prophecy concerning the fall of Jerusalem, or the vision of Egypt in Isaias and the other prophets, how does the vision of Tyre or whatever was prophesied of Tyre, or of the prince of Tyre, how does even the vision of the fourfooted beasts in the desert that we read of in Isaias depend on these two commandments?

This to me appears to be the meaning of the passage in question. He who fulfils all that is written concerning the love of God and his neighbour is worthy of receiving the highest of Godís favours, of which the first is the word of wisdom through the Holy Spirit, through which comes the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit (I Cor. xii. 8). Made worthy of all these gifts he rejoices in the wisdom of God, his heart filled with the love of God, his whole soul illumined by the light of
knowledge, and his whole mind by the word of God. And receiving such gifts from God, he now truly understands that the whole law and the prophets are but part of all the wisdom and knowledge of God, and understands that the whole law and the prophets depend on, and have as their beginning the love of the Lord God and of our neighbour, and that the perfect fulfilment of our duty to God consists in love.

The things we have said here will suffice for you. Nevertheless, to show its greatness, it is fitting we should also place before you what follows: Charity is patient, is kind; charity is not puffed up, dealeth not perversely; is not ambitious, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things. Charity never falleth away (I Cor. xiii. 4-8). No one weak of soul possesses charity, nor he who does what is contrary to mildness, nor he who burns with the jealous fury of his brother against Joseph, or of Aaron and Mary against Moses. And no one who is puffed up with pride has charity, nor he who deals wrongly with another, nor whoever is inflamed with anger. Again, no one who soiled by evil thoughts can have charity in his heart.

He who has charity will never rejoice in any injustice, but will always share in rejoicing in the truth. He who has charity will bear all tribulations patiently, and does not in part believe, but believeth all things; he does not hope in part, but hopeth all things; There is nothing love will not endure, for it endureth all things. And since charity never fails, the Apostle, filled with confidence, cries out that he has wholly embraced it.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or distress? Or famine? Or nakedness? Or danger? Or the sword? As it is written: For thy sake, we are put to death all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter (Rom. viii. 35, 36). And because of charity he declares: But in all these things we overcome, because of him that loved us. And from that charity that never fails, come these words from this same voice: For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.