The Greatest Commandment

Shema Yisrael at the Knesset Menorah in Jerusalem
(Licensed by Rabanus Flavus under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

9th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday

Mark 12:28-34

Most of the encounters between Jesus and the teachers of the Law in the Gospels were confrontational and combative, but in this passage we meet an unusually thoughtful and spiritually mature son of Israel. 

One of the scribes who had been listening to Jesus asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The first part of Jesus’ response was familiar to every Jew from the cradle—the Shema (Hear!) began every synagogue service and was the pillar of Judaism. Found in Deuteronomy (6:4-9; 11:13-21) and Numbers (15:37-41), over time the command to “bind them” to the hand, between the eyes, and on doorposts and gates was taken literally and evolved into the phylacteries which Jesus condemned (Matthew 23:5). 

The second part came from Leviticus 19:18. All of the minute rules and regulations of Jewish law were summed up in these two precepts—love of God and love of neighbor, or simply, love, for the two are inseparable.

The scribe found a kindred spirit in Jesus and spontaneously responded: “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, He is One and there is no other than he. And to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

This remarkable scholar probably spent a lot of time meditating on the essence of the Law contained in Prophets like Samuel: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to the Lord’s command? Obedience is better than sacrifice, to listen, better than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). In passages like these, the highest wisdom of Judaism is contained. All external works and sacrifices find their fulfillment in the inner temple of the heart.

The scribe received a tremendous gift that day in hearing from Love Incarnate himself, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” 

Jesus’ face, body, hands, voice and entire demeanor radiated wisdom and kindness. People listening to him were captivated: “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

-GMC

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