Greatest Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)

I love how you can look at a passage you know well and be struck by it anew with facets you’ve never seen before. (Facets of a jewel is a strikingly good image for this. Something about the way that the light catches it today that only serves to re-affirm its character as jewel.)

Last night Brett and I were talking about Mark 12:28-34, the story where a scribe asks about the most important commandment and Jesus replies about loving God with everything and your neighbour as yourself. What really struck me this time through was how lavish and full was Jesus’ description of our love for God, hearkening back so clearly to Exodus and the heart of the Jewish covenant. He says “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 sould and with all your mind and with all your strength.’” (12:29-30)

In contrast, look at his second commandment: “Love your neighbour as yourself” (12:31). So simple. Common sense. I wonder if John was thinking of this saying of Jesus when he wrote: “anyone who does not love his brother or sister, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20)

But the scribe did not ask about the greatest commandments (plural), but asked for one. Jesus never feels constrained to accept the implications of others’ questions — he answers, when he answers at all, on his terms, not ours. He gives two commandments.

And here’s where I finally catch up to Brett, who had raised it because of what Jesus says next: “There is no commandment (singular) greater than these.” Although he acknowledges these are two, he treats them as if they were one, as if you couldn’t really talk about one without the other (a unity I think he exploited in the rich young ruler episode, Mark 10:19. Isn’t there a twinkle in his eye as he deliberately omits the one he starts with in Mark 12?).

Brett saw in Mark 12 (the linking the two great commandments as the answer to what’s more important) the reason why John wrote as he did, the reason why James and Paul agree while appearing to disagree and the problem with any Christianity that focuses only on an individual relationship with Jesus Christ to the omission of an integral love for others. Asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus of course replied with love for God, but could not omit, in the same breath, love for each other.

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