Summary: In Jesus' interaction with the Teacher of the Law, he teaches us to love God first and foremost, draw from that love to love others around us, and trust our lives to the author of love.
Our tax code, at the most conservative count, takes up 2,652 pages. If you add to it the tax law and past cases, you come up with over 74,000 pages! All trying to get us to do the right thing.
In Jesus’ day, the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the Law took the 613 Hebrew letters that spell out the Ten Commandments, and developed some corresponding 613 individual statutes in the Law. Next, they tried to sort these 613 statutes into heavy commandments and light commandments, but they could never reach a consensus.
Throughout Mark chapter 12, these Pharisees and Scribes and Teachers of the Law repeatedly put Jesus to the test. They were trying to trip him up. Finally, in today’s passage, it seems a teacher with no hidden motive presented Jesus a question: “Of all the commands in the Bible, which is most important?” It’s a great question, really. It’s like asking someone, “What truly matters most in life?” Or, “What is our chief purpose here on earth?”
Jesus didn’t hesitate. He went right to the Shema, so named for its first Hebrew word, our word “hear.” The Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. It states, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Every good Jew knew the Shema, because they said it aloud as a confession of faith every morning and every night. Jesus said, “It’s most important to love God first.” And that’s our first point today:
1. Love God first and foremost.
We’re not to simply love him with our emotions. That’s a modern concept of love. We’re to go well beyond that, and to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Our love for God will influence all we do, what we say, where we spend our money, how we spend our time, who we befriend, who we marry. As the Shema states, there is but ONE God, and he must be OUR God. Anything or anyone else that takes that top spot becomes an idol, a cheap substitute. We must put God first, or everything will be out of order in our lives. Nothing will make sense. As Saint Francis Xavier wrote, “E’en so I love thee, and will love, and in thy praise will sing; solely because thou art my God and my eternal King.”
Sometimes people wonder, “Why does scripture say God is a jealous God?” He is jealous for your affection, because he knows nothing else will do. If you put anything or anyone else first, you will be let down. Why? Because your priorities will be out of whack. God knows that, so God protects first place for himself. Put God first, and he will help you with everything else. That’s what the first four of the Ten Commandments are all about: keeping God first.
Jesus addressed this in his Sermon on the Mount. He talked about how people worry about food and clothes. After reminding how God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the fields, he said, in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Love God first and foremost. Put God first. Seek God’s will in everything.
Secondly, Jesus teaches us to...
2. Draw on God’s love to love your neighbor as yourself.
Jesus took two different verses from the Torah—the first five books of the Bible, considered most holy by the Jews. The two shared a rarely used verb in the Hebrew: “Ve-ahavta.” It translates, “And you shall love.” So Jeus tied together the idea of loving God from Deuteronomy 6:5 with loving neighbor as yourself from Leviticus 19:18. Nobody asked him for a second commandment. Yet, it’s as if he was saying the two are inseparable. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is impossible to love God and hate your neighbor. If you truly hate someone around you, you do not have the love of God in your heart.
The Apostle John wrote similar words in 1 John 4:20: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” It’s impossible to love God and hate your neighbor. You just can’t do both at the same time.
So the alternative is to draw on God’s love to love your neighbor as yourself. So we are to love God more than ourselves, and our neighbor as ourselves. The last six of the Ten Commandments are all about loving neighbor as yourself. If you are having trouble loving your neighbor, ask God for help. God will give you that supernatural love that comes from heaven alone.