Summary: The greatest commandment.
NOT FAR FROM THE KINGDOM OF GOD?
Long before the invention of the printing press, men called Scribes would work together to copy out the Scriptures for future generations. By doing this, we might suggest, they became well-versed in the Law of Moses (cf. Ezra 7:6). They were the men to go to for the clarification of legal points, and they also busied themselves in the interpretation and application of the text.
Now one such Scribe came to Jesus (Mark 12:28). Jesus had silenced the Pharisees (Mark 12:13-17); and the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27): and this man was well impressed with Jesus’ answers. The Scribe asked Jesus directly for His input on a subject that was being openly debated throughout the schools of thought, and in all the forums: “Which is the greatest commandment of all?”
Jesus’ answer takes us all the way back to basics: specifically, to the Jewish ‘Shema’ (which means ‘Hear’, from its first word). “Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30; cf. Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
When God speaks, He calls us to hearken: ‘Thus says the LORD’ (e.g. Jeremiah 9:23-24); ‘Hear the Word of the LORD” (e.g. Jeremiah 22:29); and the like. Jesus’ own catch-line is: ‘Ye have heard that it was said… but I say unto you’ (Matthew 5:44); or ‘Amen, Amen, I say unto you’ (e.g. John 5:24). The LORD says of Jesus: ‘Listen to Him’ (Luke 9:35).
“Hear O Israel” bases the command to love in the context of our covenant relationship with God. As the Scribe rightly noted in His commendation of Jesus’ reply, “He is One, and there is no other” (Mark 12:32). So, ‘we love Him because He first loved us’ (1 John 4:19).
The love required by an absolute suzerain is an exclusive, absolute love. Thus, the injunction to love God with heart, soul and strength (Mark 12:30) is a call based in what He has done through the Cross of Jesus, not in our own ability to remain steadfast. ‘Without Him we can do nothing’ (John 15:5).
Jesus also emphasises the engagement of our minds in our love to God. When you come to church, quipped one preacher, please don’t leave your brains at the door! Ours is not to be the blind faith of the ignorant.
But Jesus goes one step beyond the Scribe’s request. He adds another commandment, and places it alongside the Shema as of equal importance. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Mark 12:31; cf. Leviticus 19:18).
Just as the Oneness of God set the limit for the first of these commandments, so our relationship to ourselves sets the limit for the second. Self-loathing is never commended, but rather a healthy self-love in which we take care to nurture ourselves, etc. And just as we would that others should do for us, so should we do for them (Matthew 7:12).
“There is no other commandment greater than these,” says Jesus. They belong together. He who loves God will love his neighbour (cf. 1 John 4:21).
The Scribe understood all this. “Well said, Teacher,” he said (Mark 12:32-33). The Shema is true, and to love God thus wholeheartedly, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself is so much more important than the sacrificial system represented right here in this very Temple! Not that he was disparaging his own religion: but even our own reading of the Old Testament itself teaches us that God requires obedience rather than sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22; cf. Matthew 9:13).
When Jesus saw that this man answered discreetly, Jesus had His own discreet word for the man. “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). From then on, no-one dared question Jesus any more.
“Not far” seems to echo the early preaching of Jesus: ‘The kingdom of God is nigh’ (Mark 1:15). How so? In that the King was present.
This man was in the very presence of the Lord, but he could not understand the full implications of the self-giving love which Jesus called for until after the Cross. What then: did he ever come to faith, or was he like the rich young ruler who ‘went away sad’ (Mark 10:22)? We do not know.
What we do know is that Jesus came to fulfil the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). The Temple was soon to be destroyed (Mark 13:2). Meanwhile, the ability to love God and neighbour was held forth as the sum of the whole of the law (cf. Romans 13:9).
‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). ‘By this we know the love of God, in that He laid down His life for us’ (1 John 3:16). Therefore, ‘Let us love one another, for love is of God’ (1 John 4:7).