Here comes the third and final question asked by those seeking to have Jesus stumble over his words. As the water begins to increase, the bubbles form on the bottom of the pot; the conflict continues to grow, with no sign of it stopping. Eventually, this conflict would bubble over. The Pharisees came to Jesus and asked about taxes, the Sadducees came to Jesus and asked about marriage in heaven, and now it is the Scribes who come and ask Jesus a question. This question, however, is slightly different than the others; the question has a slither of light that starts to breakthrough. The conflict seemly is nonstop, and the questions are given to Jesus rapidly. The Pharisees and Sadducees asked the other questions to trap and ensnare Jesus. This question, however, is asked by one Scribe who genuinely seeks to find the truth. This passage can give us hope that the Holy Spirit can continue to work in people’s hearts amid conflict. The Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes might not change their hearts, but we do see the hope that one Scribe is close to the kingdom of God.
I. The Question
One Scribe comes up and listens to the debate and discussion that Jesus has with the Pharisees and Sadducees. He listens as Jesus asks for a coin and says, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar and to God the things that are God’s.” He heard Jesus’ response to the Sadducees that they do not know the power of God or the Scriptures, that God is the God of the living and not of the dead. As this single Scribe listens, he hears Jesus’ responses seeing that he has answered them well. Before we look at the question, we need to highlight this beautiful truth: in the middle of these religious leaders is one man seeking the truth who listens to Christ’s words. His question is not about seeking to destroy Jesus or have him arrested. We are quick to place people in categories of religious leaders are bad; however, just as Judas was in the twelve, this nameless Scribe is in the crowd. The beautiful truth is that we do not know which way the wind will blow, so it is for everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8). We see in the gospels the fantastic reality of those who we would put in the hopeless categories of religious leaders, can and do become believers. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both members of the Sanhedrin, were some of the disciples who buried Jesus. Sometimes it might appear that when you share the gospel, it is falling on deaf ears, and it might be; however, there might be one pair of ears that are not deaf.
The Scribe asks Jesus, “which commandment is the most important of all?” The scribes were well-educated people; they could read and write, they studied the scriptures and would know the middle letter of the Torah found in Leviticus 11:42 (Vav). The Hebrew word for scribes, sopherim, is related to counting, reckoning, and keeping written documents (Hence why they knew the middle letter). They were the people with the Ph.D.’s on their walls, who used sophisticated language and were able to compare the different Rabbinic Traditions and comment on the variances and nuances of the reading of the Torah. This question was not an original question but would have been asked frequently and answered differently. Within the Torah, there are 613 laws; of these laws, 365 were prohibitions, and 248 were positive commands. The Pharisees had written a commentary of these laws explaining what it means to keep the Sabbath holy. The Scribes were more clerks or secretaries, keepers of the documents. They would have systems of rankings of ‘serious violations’ and ‘smaller violations’ of the Law. Therefore Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19). The Scribe asks the question not to find the highest-ranking commandment but the root commandment, which all other commandments can be understood. James Edwards gives us examples of Rabbi’s answers to this question; Rabbi Hillel (10 AD); “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah, everything else is interpretation.” Rabbi Akiba (135 AD) summarized the Torah to Lev 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” A rabbi (235 AD) quoted Prov 3:6 as the heart of the Law, “In all your ways acknowledge God, and he will make your paths straight.” Rabbi Simlai (260 AD) quoted Hab 2:4, “The righteous will live by his faith.” It is quite possible this Scribe had his own answer or had been trained in a particular school of thought. He was interested to hear Jesus’ response to his question, “which commandment is the most important of all?”
II. Jesus’ Answer
As we have seen before, Jesus answers the question in an amazing way that can help us in how we are to speak to others, especially those genuinely seeking the truth. Jesus quotes the Bible. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5,
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.“
This is known as the ‘Shema’ from the first word, Hear, which in Hebrew is Shema. Matthew does not record Jesus’ full quote of the text, and Luke does not include this in his gospel account. This is one of those rare occasions that Mark includes more than Matthew or Luke. Generally, it is Mark who has a shorter version. Jews recited the Shema in the morning and evening. Deuteronomy 6:1-9 is located after Chapter five, which repeats the 10 Commandments given to Israel from Mount Sinai. Israel sees the glory and greatness of God while he speaks the Commandments to them in the midst of the fire. They tell Moses to be a mediator between them and God because they thought they would die (Deut 5:25). God listens to his people and instructs Moses to “stand here by me, and I will tell you the whole commandment and the statutes and the rules that you shall teach them…” (Deut 5:28a). Chapter 6 starts Moses teaching and expositing the Ten Commandments given from Deuteronomy 5.
Jesus’ response is not first a commandment, i.e., do this or don’t do this, but with doctrinal truth. Theology matters. If we seek to be able to summarize the commandments down to action, we miss the point; it becomes a list of dos and don’ts; it becomes a moral checklist. One day we might unpack this point in more detail. The most important commandment, Jesus explains, is to love the Lord your God.
Interestingly, we are told to love God. The word love is often used in the Bible to depict a relationship between; Father/son (Gen 22:2; 37:3), Slave/master (Exo 21:8), In-laws (Ruth 4:15), Husband/Wife (1 Sam 1:5). It is a strange command when you come to think about it; A commandment to love. However, we should not forget that the commandment to love comes after the glorious statement of who God is. As the Scribe tells Jesus, “there is no other beside him.” Once you know God in his glorious attributes, you cannot but love him. But also, an important word follows, “You are to love the LORD your God.” If he is not your God, you would not love him; you cannot love him. God loves his people because they are his treasured possession (Deut 26:18). We love God because he is ours, and we are his.
We need not know how to apply this commandment to our lives. Just as in the great commission, we are given the instruction of ‘making disciples,’ we are given how to make disciples (Matt 28:18-20). The great commandment is that we should Love the Lord your God, and we are told how were are to love him. You could look at this verse and see the individual nature of the heart, soul, mind, and strength in our entirety. But for the interest of time, let us just see their wholeness. Within this command, we are told in every way and every aspect of our life we are to love God. You cannot partially love God. Origen said, “When you decide to keep the command of this precept and reject all other gods and lords and have no god or lord except the one God and Lord, you have declared war on all others without treaty.” If you do not love God with your whole heart, then what you have done is denied the doctrinal truth at the beginning of the verse; you do not believe God is one, that there is none like him. You have sought to say God is the God of this part of my life, but I need another god in this area. That is why I believe love is the perfect word for this command; partial love is not true love. A husband cannot say to his wife, I do not have enough ‘love’ in my tank, and begin to negotiate and explain, I can be your husband on Tuesday to Friday, but the other days of the week, I will be a bachelor. You can have my heart, but not my strength. You can have my mind but not my soul. This is not love but a perversion of emotions. All these things are tied together. Therefore, we need to grasp and fathom the reality of “your God.” Once you know God is your God, it is easy to love him with your heart, soul might, and strength. You could do a sermon series on this verse; what does it mean to hear? How is God one yet three? What does all mean? What about heart, soul, mind, and strength? Why does Jesus include mind? But for time, we should move on.
Jesus then gives the second part of his answer, he again does not come up with a short pity saying but quotes scripture back the Scribe, this time he quotes from Leviticus 19:18b,
“you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Leviticus 19 begins with the Lord telling Moses to say to Israel, “You shall be holy for I am holy, for I am the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). Moses then instructs the people of Israel about how they are to treat one another. The refrain “I am the Lord” frequently appears in Leviticus. Leviticus 19 focuses on laws about how Israel was to treat their neighbors. The section finishes in verse 18, with the summary, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus again takes a legal question and turns it around to practical reality. Matthew records Jesus explaining the ‘golden rule,’ “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 7:12).
Jesus taught this at the sermon of the mount, which Matthew concludes with, “for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt 7:29). The Scribes had tried to answer these great questions, and yet within a moment, Jesus could answer this question. The Pharisees had laws about what they could or could not do on the Sabbath that they were to tithe on the herb garden, with traditions about washing hands and entering marketplaces. They had sought to apply the letter of the Law, but in doing so, they didn’t think of the substance of the Law. Jesus gives the commandment that you shall love your neighbor and that you should love your neighbor as yourself. One thing no one ever needs to be taught is to put yourselves first. I have never been required to sit down with our children and explain; you should try and think of yourself more. It is always the opposite. How can you think of others? You have had a long turn with that toy; how can you love your sister or brother? The command is crystal clear. However, it is clearly challenging.
Again, we do not get to define what type of love this is. We cannot then explain that love is purely accepting people. Nor that love is not showing grace. A biblical word needs a biblical definition. Again, Jesus is not saying these are the only two commandments because he said he has not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17-20). We cannot define how we love our neighbor. Paul frequently explains that the whole Law is fulfilled in this one commandment (Rom 13:9-10, Gal 5:14).
III. The Twist
Just as Jesus has done in the previous questions, he ends with a short statement that answers a deeper question, one that is not asked. Jesus said, “there is no other commandment greater than these.” Jesus gives us the commandments that help us understand all the commandments. The ten commandments are given in two tables; the first (commandments 1-4) is centered around God, the second (Commandments 5-10) is centered around our neighbor. Yet, in these two commandments given by Jesus, they are connected; you cannot love your neighbor if you do not love God. To understand love, you must first know that “God so loved us…” only once we realize that we can love one another (1 John 4:11). We love because he first loved us. You cannot say you love God and hate your brother; you are a liar (1 John 4:19-20). They are in order of importance, many people think they can obey the second, but you cannot understand loving your neighbor until you Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. The Christian life is not a drive-thru menu in which you pick and choose what you do and do not do. You cannot say God is Lord of my life and then live your life without God.
The Scribe responds to Jesus’ answer; he ecstatically agrees with Jesus’ response, not just repeating the phrase back to him but summarizing Jesus’ teaching with several Scriptural references (Deut 4:35; 6:4; Lev 19:18; 1 Sam 15:22; Isa 45:21; Hos 6:6). Considering the focus of Mark’s gospel on the temple in these chapters, we must point out the Scribe’s priories that loving God and neighbor is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. This is Jesus’ rebuke when he rebukes the Scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” It is not that they tithe, but they neglect the weightier matters of the Law. In their minds, it is more important to tithe on mint they have grown in their garden than care for the widow. Just as Samuel told King Saul, who thought sacrifices were more important than obedience, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22).
As mentioned before, Jesus commended the Scribe for his response, seeing as he answered wisely. Jesus turns and utters words that can be heard as great encouragement or a great warning. The encouragement is that he is not far from the kingdom of God. The encouragement comes that he is close to the finish line. However, the warning is that he is not yet over the finish line. He is not in the kingdom of God. To almost reach the lifeboat is not the same as being saved by the lifeboat. We do not know anything about this Scribe or whether he will be in heaven or not. After these three questions, everyone is silenced. No one asks any more questions of Jesus, but as we will see next week, Jesus asks them a question.