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Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has cursed the fig tree, cleared the temple, and had his authority questioned. It is now Tuesday of his last week and he is teaching in the Temple. It had been a day of intense debate, a war of wits and words with the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians.
They have been trying to trap Jesus, asking him what appear to be honest, straightforward questions. But most of the questions were like asking a man if he’s still stealing from the offering plate. It’s a no win question.
But it really wasn’t much of a contest, these folks questioning Jesus. As any debate, this had attracted a sizable number of spectators. One of those spectators was a scribe.
Scribes appear throughout this Gospel but, except for this story, appear in a negative light. This scribe, a happy exception, comes to Jesus because he sees that Jesus has answered his opponents well. The Sadducees have just tried to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection, in which they do not believe (12:18-27).
There is a good possibility that this scribe is a Pharisee, and Pharisees do believe in the resurrection. If he is a Pharisee, he must be pleased to see Jesus best the Sadducees on that question.
So he asks, "Which commandment is the first of all?" It doesn’t appear that he is trying to trap Jesus. This seems to be a sincere question.
"Which commandment is the first of all?" sounds like maybe he is asking for the most important commandment, but it is possible that he wanted a deeper response. Maybe he was looking for the commandment that will help him to understand all other commandments. Maybe he was looking for the commandment that will point his life in the right direction. Maybe he’s looking for the commandment that will tell him in a nutshell all that he needs to know.
Now, you need to know that scribes were experts in the Jewish religious law. The scribes copied the Scriptures by hand, and actually counted the letters on the page to make sure nothing was left out. They were also responsible to copy and know the commentaries on the law.
So here is a person who has great knowledge of and is intimately familiar with God’s law. He has copied it by hand over and over. He has memorized it. He has read and copied what other people had to say about it. And he comes to Jesus and asks, "What’s the bottom line? Out of all of these Laws, what is the number 1, most important thing?”
And Jesus gives him both of the most important #1 things. He says, “Hear, O Israel! the Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. The second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.”
These TWO are the greatest commandment. Jesus is telling the scribe AND US that if you love God then you must love your neighbor, too. They go together like peanut butter and jelly, like sunrise and sunset.
Loving God comes first, then love for your neighbor will follow.
Of course, I can sense the questions in your minds. “What do you mean by love?” and the question posed to Jesus in the good Samaritan story, “Who is my neighbor”?
Historically, "neighbor", as referred to in Leviticus 19:18, specifically meant "the sons of your own people.
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