The greatest commandment (May 25, 2014)

Scripture Passage and Lesson Focus: Mark 12:28-34 

Jesus’ reputation as a sincere and impartial teacher who taught “the way of God in accordance with truth” (Mark 12:14) attracted a variety of discussion partners. Some came to entrap Jesus with difficult questions whose answers would put him at risk no matter what position he took. Others came to ask Jesus personal questions whose answers could provide meaningful insight. That seems to have been the intent of the Jewish lawyer who asked Jesus what commandment was the first (i.e., the most important) of all the commandments. This was a commonly discussed issue among Jewish teachers at this time and the questioner was evidently curious about the answer Jesus would give.

Mark 12:28-31 — Jesus quotes Scripture to answer a question about the greatest commandment. 

Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Jesus expands this central teaching of the Law of Moses by adding that believers are also to love God “with all your mind,” which is also found in Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:37.

Jesus also quotes Leviticus 19:18b: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a second great commandment that Jesus combines with the first one as if to say that it is just as important as the first one. Most Presbyterians are accustomed to hearing these commandments frequently in worship, but many are surprised to discover that they did not originate with Jesus but are from the Old Testament.

To love God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength means that every dimension of our humanity should be involved in loving God. But what does it mean to love God? Love has acquired so many different meanings for us today. Sometimes we use the word “love” quite superficially (“I just love my new car”), while at other times we struggle to express a profound sense of love that cannot be fully expressed in words. How can a finite human being situated in a specific time and place love an infinite God who is transcendent and shrouded in mystery?

If we were left to our own devices, we could not love God. Our human nature pushes us away from God and wraps us up in ourselves like a swaddled newborn infant. Only God’s grace — God’s stubborn refusal to abandon us — makes it possible for us to love God. Francis Thompson’s familiar poem “The Hound of Heaven” describes God’s deep and inescapable concern for human beings. We love God because God first loved us by creating us in God’s image, by sending God’s Son to redeem us and by filling us with the Holy Spirit who empowers us to acknowledge God as our loving parent.

To love God has many meanings. To love God with our whole heart means that our feelings, our intentions and our relationships embrace all that is sacred. To love God with all our strength means that our physical capabilities, our actions, our time, and our talents are directed to do that which honors and obeys God. To love God with our mind means to look at the world with God in the center and to relate all things to God. To love God with our soul can be difficult to understand if we are limited to thinking about our soul as an immaterial spiritual essence that is the opposite of our body. Instead, following the pattern that is clear in the Old Testament, if we place our soul, our whole self, in God’s covenantal care and trust God to shape us through the Word, loving God with our soul is as natural as breathing.

Mark 12:32-34 — Affirming the greatest commandment brings a person close to God. 

The curious scribe acknowledged the correctness of Jesus’ answer to his question. Then he added his own interpretative comment. He said that commandments about religious ceremonial laws are much less important than the commandment to love God and one’s neighbor. Jesus agreed and said that the lawyer’s answer showed how near he was to God.

For discussion 

The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 1 says that a human being’s chief purpose is “to glorify God, and to enjoy God forever.” How do you glorify and enjoy God? Who are the neighbors you love the way you love yourself? Are there neighbors you find it difficult to love? Are there neighbors you refuse to love?