Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall 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: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 ESV)
It is part of human nature to seek answers to life’s most important questions — Who are we? What is our purpose? Where are we going? — and we seek answers to these questions no matter if we’re religious or not. If one believes in an afterlife, one typically believes that to get there one must pass some moral test. The problem is which moral test must we pass? What must we do to qualify for the afterlife? Usually, the moral test in mind involves live a good life, be nice to others, etc. The only problem I see with such moral codes is how do you know you’ve done enough good deeds? There is no security in a philosophy like this, and advocates of this line of thinking know deep down that this is true. In most cases, people who believe this think that surely if there is a God, he will let me into heaven because he knows I’ve tried my best to live according to this moral code.
In today’s Scripture passage, Jesus is being confronted by several hostile groups in the week leading up to his eventual crucifixion. In this particular encounter, Jesus is approached by a scribe who was impressed with Jesus’ responses to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He asks Jesus which is the greatest commandment; which commandment is the most important to follow. Jesus begins his reply with the Shama — “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” This is the most important credal statement a Jew can make, and according to Jesus, it’s the most important commandment of all. He then goes on to cite another commandment as the second most important commandment; namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There are no commandments greater than these two. In the parallel account in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus continues by saying that the entire Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments. In other words, the entire scope of the Scriptures is founded upon the twin commandments of loving God and loving others.
Today people look at this and think, “That’s great! All of the commands and exhortations of Scripture essentially boil down to loving God and loving others. That’s a lot easier than having to remember hundreds of individual commandments.” There is a grain of truth in this statement, but it is also a gross simplification to say that the Bible basically teaches us to love God and love others; as if that’s somehow simpler. Let’s consider the first of these two foundational commandments. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. There are four “alls” in that command. How are you doing with that? Can you point to a time during the day when you didn’t love God with every fiber of your being? I surely can. Then there is the second commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself. How are you doing with that? If you ever exhibit the slightest moment of selfishness or self-centeredness, then you’ve failed in this command. And if you consider the base concept of every command and exhortation in Scripture, at its heart you’ll see that they are either based on our love for God or our love for our neighbor. Suddenly that simplification doesn’t seem so simple anymore.
After giving his answer, the scribe says to Jesus that he has answered correctly and that to love God with every ounce of our being and to love our neighbors selflessly is much more than all the sacrifices in the world combined. In other words, the “Law of Love” is much more important than religious observance. Jesus told the scribe that he is not far from the Kingdom of God. What did he mean by that? Essentially, the fact that the scribe recognized that love is more important that ritual was a big step in the right direction considering that the Pharisees found their salvation in their self-righteousness. But being not far from the Kingdom is still not in the Kingdom. What must one do to be in the Kingdom of God? There are basically two ways to answer that question: 1) Perfectly fulfill the law of love (i.e., truly love God with every fiber of your being and truly love your neighbor as yourself); 2) Recognize that you cannot possibly fulfill the law of love to God’s standards and trust in one who was able to perfectly fulfill the law of love on our behalf — namely, Jesus Christ!
Soli Deo Gloria!