If you want to start a discussion, ask someone what the greatest is. The subject doesn’t really matter. What is the greatest song? What is the greatest book? What was the greatest game (pick a sport)? What is the greatest TV show? Who was the greatest president? Who is the greatest artist? Etc.
Most any topic can be turned into a discussion of the greatest. And that discussion can get rather lively as opinions begin to be shared. In fact, when individuals begin to have these discussions, the greatest commandment is often forgotten. Why? Because emotion and passion get in the way of love.
That may sound strange because we think of love as an emotion and as an expression of passion. And, in a sense, love does represent each. But love is only one such expression of a person’s passion. Other expressions such as anger often make us forget that we do love, or that we are supposed to love, others – including those who are closest to us. Because love requires intentionality, other passions do not.
Think of it this way. Think about someone you love or have loved. Now think about a time when that person made you angry. In your moment of anger, or even at this moment as you reflect, did you have to think about getting angry. Probably not. It just happened. Did you have to think about loving them later – probably. Let me give you an example. Just after Christmas, my wife and I were preparing lunch for family. We had a misunderstanding during the process and I got very frustrated. Now, I could sense myself getting frustrated, but I didn’t stop and say, “You know, I think I should get frustrated right now. That would be the right thing to do.” No, it just happened. But later, in order to resolve the situation, we had to be intentional – we had to sit down and talk it out. That took intentionality.
The reality is that loving others is one of the hardest things we can choose to do. But it is a choice.
The reality is that while love is an action, and it is a choice, it is also a command of God. As Mark records this story, it is the final challenge to Jesus in the temple courtyard on the week He would die. But this challenge was different as we shall soon see.
The Trap: A Contrived Plan
The last two weeks, I have talked about this master plan that was conceived by the religious leaders. Why did they need a plan? Well, a few minutes ago, I mentioned the idea of the word greatest – and Jesus was the greatest threat to their power and prestige. So the leaders schemed to confront Jesus and ultimately to defraud Him. They do so with four questions:
- By whose authority do you do what you do?
- Should we pay taxes to Caesar?
- What happens at the resurrection related to God’s law about marriage?
- What is the greatest commandment?
It is this final question which demands our focus this week. But the question here has a different tone to it, as does the response of the scribe towards Jesus after He responds. Because of this change in tone, many people believe that this encounter was not to trap Jesus – and perhaps it wasn’t. But I believe it was originally meant to be because Mark places it within the context of seven statements of conflict (this is number five). I say originally, because I believe this man was open to the teachings of Christ which changed his demeanor as he witnessed the previous exchanges between Jesus and the other religious leaders.
The scribe comes having heard the encounter with the Pharisees. Mark records that he (Jesus) answered well. That is, Jesus answered correctly according to this scribe’s perspective. But the scribes were a part of the Sanhedrin (notice verse 18 and 27). The Sanhedrin was part of the group out to discredit Jesus, but not all Pharisees or scribes hated Jesus. For instance, we know Nicodemus went to Jesus to seek the truth and from that encounter, as recorded in John 3, we have the famed verse that “God so loved the world...”
In fact, that may be part of what endeared Jesus to this scribe. He outwitted the Sadducees which were theological opponents of the Pharisees. So this scribe comes, hears Jesus discredit his opponent and begins to have a change of heart. Therefore, this man asks his question, but not with the same overtones of destroying Jesus like the others had.
Let’s take a look.
A Constructive Pursuit
The question he asks Jesus is essentially how Jesus interprets Scripture. The previous groups have asked about His authority, His politics (taxes), and His theology (resurrection).
On a recent Sunday night, I talked specifically about the methods of rabbinic teaching. Rabbis often discussed the lighter and weightier laws. That is, which commandments are more important and should control the understandings of the other laws. The Torah contained 613 laws – 248 were positive and 365 were negative (prohibiting certain actions – such as “Do not lie”). It is clear this scribe considered Jesus a rabbi because he calls Jesus, “Teacher” in verse 32. Different rabbis had various views on which commandment was the most important, so the question presented was common – Of the 613 commandments, which is the greatest?
It is a good question really – what is most important? Essentially, the question could be stated like this: “If I only had to focus on one thing, what would it be?”
The Response: A Central Principle
Jesus answer is Love. Love God and love others.
Jesus command to love God comes from Deuteronomy 6. This statement was essentially a creed to the Jews. Deuteronomy 6.4 represented the first words a Jewish boy would be taught to say. It was the last words that would be said over a dying person – thus, this verse was literally a life-long verse. Each day, a faithful Jew would quote the verse every morning and every night.
And the words were not just said, they were written on a scroll and placed on the doorposts and gates. The scroll itself was called a mezuzah
|A mezuzah on the wall of a gate in modern day Jerusalem|
as is the object which contains the scroll. Seeing the mezuzah was to serve as a reminder to always have this saying on your mind.
But Jesus statement here reveals that this is more than words to be said. It is about action. (In Deuteronomy 6.7 it says to teach them (which involves saying this) when you lie down and when you rise. One of the debates around Jesus’ time was about how long the sun should be up or down before saying these words! The people had completely lost sight of the action needed – just as we often do ourselves.)
So Jesus says our love for God should be with every part of our being. In Deuteronomy, the command includes heart, soul, and strength, but Jesus includes mind. Thus, our love should be with all of our heart (emotions), soul (spirit), mind (intelligence), and strength (will).
Click here for a few verses about what it means and/or why we should love God.
Jesus then continues – probably a surprise to everyone involved. He adds the element of loving our neighbor. The question was what is the greatest, but Jesus gives two answers and then combines the two into one concept. Notice the end of verse 31: “There is no other commandment (singular) greater than these (plural).”
The second commandment to love the neighbor is from Leviticus 19.18. In Leviticus, the context is about a person’s own people. But Jesus expands that concept, as He does so many, and includes all people. In Luke, when Jesus was asked this question earlier, the example He gave to clarify the idea of neighbor was given in the story of The Good Samaritan. The story showed that it was not just the Jews that are to be loved, but even the half-breed people of the world, and further-yet, the Gentiles. (It is helpful to remember that these encounters are taking place in the Court of the Gentiles within the temple complex.)
How can we love others? Only through Christ. The reality, as one commentator mentioned, is that our “love for God releases the love of God.”(1)
And that is why Jesus, on His last night with them gave them a new commandment – to love one another.
“34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13.34-35
The idea of one another is different from others. By others, Jesus means all people – anywhere and everywhere. By one another, He is talking specifically of His followers. Of course, if we are to love everyone, then it stands to reason that we should love those who believe in Jesus. But do we? How often do we hear of people leaving churches because of fighting, turmoil, and an overall lack of love. I am not suggesting that a loving church will not have disagreements, arguments, and even some fighting from time to time – but at the end of the day, we are family, and thus we are called, by our Lord – the Lord of the Church – to love one another.
The other gospels record Jesus teaching the need to love others throughout His ministry. Additionally, the New Testament letters speak of the need to love others – especially one another. (I will look further at this point in the post made during he week of February 5.)
The end of this passage is one that should both captivate our imaginations and convict us to search our hearts. Verse 32 shows the scribe agrees with Jesus’ answer. This is one reason many do not believe this encounter was meant as confrontational. But as I said earlier, I believe we have an open-minded scribe who may have been asked to confront Jesus, but who, after seeing Jesus’ response to others began to desire something else.
Notice Jesus commends the scribe as well. But not completely. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The man knows Scripture. He understands it well. But he still needs to believe!
And that is the crux for us as well. It doesn’t matter how much we love (heart), how much we care (soul), how much we know (mind), how much we serve (strength) if we don’t know Jesus.
Paul says it this way:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,[a] but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Cor 13.1-4
Paul concludes this chapter by saying that of faith, hope, and love – it is love that is the greatest.
Remember, that was the question before Jesus. What is the greatest commandment? For the Jew, the greatest consideration was that of the temple. In fact, the temple as everything to the Jews. (Again, it is imperative to remember that is where this series of exchanges is taking place.) But Jesus says love is everything to God.
And the question is how will we respond?
JOURNEY: This week’s JOURNEY letter is: Y – You.
The teaching was not new then (read Micah 6.1-8, for example), but the people needed a new understanding. This teaching of Jesus is familiar to many in today’s world as well. The God, who is One, should unite us, not divide us. And yet, we do not love like we ought. Perhaps that is because we have forgotten how much God loves us. Perhaps sharing His love with others will serve as a reminder of what He has already done for us.
OPPORTUNITY: We are to express our love to God. We are to share His love with others.
REMEMBRANCE: Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
NEXT STEP(S): LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR
Love: Write down a name. Pray about what God might have you do for that person.Then commit to do whatever He leads you to do during the month of February!
(1) (Edwards, J. R. (2002). The Gospel according to Mark (p. 373). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos.)