Which is the greatest commandment? This is almost the final question. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus must answer many questions - from critics, from disciples, and from the authorities. Soon he will face interrogation by Caiaphas and by Pilate. But this is the last question that Jesus must answer from the various religious experts - Sadducees, scribes and Pharisees - who seek to discredit his authority as a teacher.
Jesus' answer is a succinct, triumphant, encapsulation of the Mosaic Law. He shows His mastery of the Scriptures in arriving at these two principles under which all the other laws and traditions may be subsumed.
Jesus first cites Moses' command to Israel in Deuteronomy 6.5 'to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul', words from the Shema, the prayer at the heart of Jewish daily worship.
The command to 'love your neighbour as yourself' sums up the many passages of the Law, like that in the first reading from Exodus, which urge concern for the immigrant, the widow or single-parent, the orphan or the child in care.
Jesus does not, of course, replace these detailed requirements of social justice and compassion, though some Christians seem adept at side-stepping their implications in contemporary society. Usury, making money unfairly with other people's money, is still a sin, whatever the bonus the banker receives.
Yet, if Jesus answers the last question, He swiftly puts his own. The lectionary, as so often, alters the significance of a passage by hiding its dramatic context. For immediately after Jesus has shown His mastery of the scriptures He turns the tables to question His critics on one key point:
While the Pharisees were gathered round, Jesus put this question to them, 'What is your opinion about the Christ? Whose son is he?'
What are they, and we, to make of Jesus himself? What will we make of his claims, and of the Messiah's presence in our midst?
It is when we place both these questions in their dramatic context, close to the opening of the final passion narrative, that we glimpse the terrible ironies that play around this scene.
All agree upon what love of God and neighbour should be, but how does that love appear in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth? The experts know what it is to love God and to love their neighbour. Yet with, and despite this knowledge, these people will execute the very person who is both Son of God and Son of Man. Is that love?
In the death of Christ we see the gap between what we know about love and what we do. The cross reveals us to be the kind of creature that can torture and crucify even the Son of God. That is surely one of the most painful truths of the Christian faith; it is lost or denied when a false theology attempts to shift the blame onto outsiders in anti-semitism, or racism.
Indeed, the cross is itself the true interpretation of these core commandments. As my novice-master, Herbert McCabe OP, insisted, the way of the cross just is what love of God and neighbour looks like in our fallen world.
Packed away in this short scene is the unpalatable truth that we too must take up our crosses if we are to love, forgive, heal, and so worship God in spirit and in truth. We can expect scorn and even persecution because that's what love sets off in those who hold and abuse power.
In which case, we can see again why this last question put to Christ leads to his questioning of the Pharisees. If we are really in the business of loving God and neighbour, we shall need the power and victory of the Messiah. It is not enough to have a humanistic ethic.
The 'great and the good' in our secular materialistic society grossly under-estimate the forces of evil which confront us. We depend on God's grace in history, the power of the Messiah at work in our lives, and in the Church, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit; we shall ultimately need His judgement and vindication of the martyrs.