In Mark 12:28 one of the teachers of the Law approached Jesus and asked Him a question - he wanted to know which of all the commandments Jesus thought was the most important.
“Of all of the commandments, which is the most important?”
… he asked.
Interestingly, this kind of question was a common one among Jewish rabbis and so there are a variety of different lenses through which we can read Mark’s story.
No one way, I don’t think, is the right way. I think we just need to let the story be what it is and go from there.
Perhaps the Jewish leader was recognizing Jesus as a Rabbi, that’s one thought. Like, maybe this particular leader recognized the authority of Jesus and realized that it must be coming from a source greater than any human power. Maybe this guy recognized Jesus’ rabbi-ness or God-ness and was, therefore, inviting Him into the discussion.
Or maybe He was just trying to flatter Jesus so that he could get Jesus to fall into a trap. The Gospels show us lots of other places where the teachers of the Law tried to trap Jesus because they were looking for a way to get rid of Him. If they were to ask Him a common question and if He were to say something that violated Jewish Law or Jewish tradition, then they would have a reason to stir up trouble for Him, arrest Him, and get rid of Him.
Maybe this guy is a prospective disciple. Like, maybe this guy is on the outside of Jesus’ followers, but just barely on the outside. Maybe he’s super intrigued by Jesus and all that He’s been doing, but maybe he’s having trouble breaking away from his old traditions and old belief system and old way of life.
(Just like we do sometimes.)
I say this because Mark tells us that when the teacher approached Jesus he had …
“HEARD Him debating and SAW Him answering well.”
Interesting choice of words by Mark because not many people in the Gospels were able to see or hear anything in the spiritual sense. Jesus, remember, called the Pharisees BLIND guides and earlier in Mark he tells us that when the disciples HEARD Jesus explain that it was not up to Him to decide who would sit on His left and who would sit on His right in His Kingdom, the disciples became indignant.
The Pharisees couldn’t see.
And although His own disciples could sometimes hear what Jesus was saying, they often didn’t respond too well.
This guy, though — this guy sees Jesus debating and hears His answers and approaches Jesus with a question of His own. Maybe this guy is so intrigued by Jesus that He’s almost ready to make that step. Maybe he’s just teetering on the edge because, after all, when their short dialogue is over Mark tells us that …
“Jesus saw that he had answered wisely and said to him, ‘You are no far from the Kingdom.”
In other words, “you’re almost there, buddy.”
“I see you breaking out of your old ways. I see you inching towards me. I see you standing out amongst the crowd. You’re asking the right questions and you’re even saying the right things. But, you’re not there yet. Keep going. Keep pushing. Keep refusing to be held back by old ways and old traditions and step out and follow Me. “
All of that to say, I’m not really sure who this guy was or what his agenda was. But, I love Jesus’ response to his question for a couple of reasons.
The guy asked Jesus what the most important command is and Jesus responded by saying …
“The most important one is this: ‘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 mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
This is interesting to me because both of these commandments that Jesus refers to are found in 2 very different pieces of Old Testament Law.
“Love the Lord your God” is from Deuteronomy 6:4 (also known as the Shema, an important piece of Jewish liturgy) and “Love your neighbor” is from Leviticus 19:18, which is interesting because according to Ched Myers in his book Binding the Strong Man …
“While each of these commandments is warmly commended by the Rabbis, so far as is known no one save Jesus has brought them together as the two regulative principles which sum up man’s duty.”
The point that Mark is trying to make in telling us this story, I think, is that the only way that heaven can come to earth (which is a common theme in his Gospel, by the way) is by loving God and loving our neighbor and that these 2 things go hand in hand because you can’t really get one without the other.
Loving God is empty and pointless if we don’t love our neighbor.
Loving our neighbor is void of maximum power if we’re not loving God.
Another interesting note is that the ‘love your neighbor’ command from the book of Leviticus is actually the end cap on a series of other commands that prohibit the oppression of the weak and poor of Israel ….
Leave your field for the sojourner to glean from. (Leviticus 19:9)
Do not steal, deal falsely or profane God. (Leviticus 19:11)
Do not oppress the neighbor, exploit employees or discriminate the disabled. (Leviticus 19:13)
Do no injustice or show partiality in judgement. (Leviticus 19:15)
… And then we come to the piece about loving our neighbor. So it’s almost as if Mark wants us to know that Jesus used that piece of Old Testament Law not just to tell us the importance of loving our neighbor, but to also tell us that the command is much bigger than that and to love our neighbor requires us to have more than just a feeling of love, but to actually love — to let people glean from what God has given us, to not deal falsely, to not oppress, to not exploit, to not discriminate, to not practice injustice.
To take it a step further, all throughout Mark’s Gospel we see that these are the exact ways that the Jewish Leaders and the Temple Leaders treated their neighbors.
The Jewish leaders were known …
To cast people out who were different.
To be unwelcoming.
To act unjustly.
And so Jesus is (essentially) saying to this Jewish Leader, “don’t be like them.”
“Stop being like the camp you came from and start being new, start being different — start living according to my Kingdom! The Kingdom that I’m bringing in part now, but will one day bring in full. It’s time to step away from that old way of life, it’s time to move away from the old kind of living, and it’s time to step into something bigger and greater, something that WILL usher heaven to earth once and for all just as your prophets from long ago foretold.”
You see, the reason why this guy wasn’t far from the Kingdom of God, but (at the same time) wasn’t there yet is because although he knew the right answers and although he had intellectual understanding of the importance of loving God and loving our neighbors, he wasn’t yet living it as much as he could have been and so Jesus tells him (and thus, us) that orthodoxy and knowledge and understanding must be accompanied by the practice of justice and goodness to the world around us. THIS is the Jesus Way, nothing else will do.
So, how can you practice it today?