It’s the week before Jesus will be crucified. A couple of days earlier, he came into Jerusalem like a triumphant king (Mark 11:1-11). You can bet the religious leaders (of every stripe) heard about that! Jesus spends these days in Jerusalem, often in the temple courts. The religious leaders come at him like waves of the ocean.
- Mark 11:27-33 (if you want to look it up): The chief priests, teachers, and elders ask him about his authority, and he entangles them in their own reasoning.
- Mark 12:13-17: The Pharisees and Herodians (a group of influential Jews who supported Rome) question him about taxes, and Jesus comes back with that oft-quoted line, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17 ESV).
- Mark 12:18-27: The Sadducees, having seen him shut down two groups already, think they have a better question. They pose a scenario about marriage and resurrection. Odd because Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection (Mark 12:18). Jesus used Scripture to refute their whole premise.
Three waves, three groups of scholars, and none of them could entangle or confuse Jesus. At this point, I imagine there’s a stumped look on many bearded, old faces in the temple court. Perhaps a leading Sadducee catches the eye of his Pharisee equivalent and shrugs almost imperceptibly. Perhaps a few near the back slip out to plot a more dastardly scheme.
But one man doesn’t back off. One man—a teacher of the law—presses in toward Jesus.
This particular teacher hasn’t been part of the waves of questioning but arrives somewhere in the middle and observes for a while. He surely hears Jesus’ wise answer to the Sadducees. The other leaders tried to stump Jesus with difficult, awkward questions for which they themselves didn’t have satisfactory answers. This man comes alone and asks the simplest question…one I think even a first-year synagogue school boy could answer. He asks Jesus which commandment is most important.
I’m puzzled by this.
I want to think this teacher
was the wisest of all.
I want to think this teacher was the wisest of all, seeking accord rather than discord. Perhaps he thought, “We need something on which we can all agree.” Perhaps he didn’t want the rumors of a potential assassination to become fact. Perhaps he wanted to make sure Jesus was still Jewish. I don’t know.
Anyway, Jesus answers with the Shema—the Jewish confession of faith from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Good Jews recited it twice every day: morning and evening. (Check your study Bible’s notes for more information on this. That’s where I found these facts.) It’s about loving God with every part of yourself.
Just as a reminder (Mark 12:30)…
- Your heart: the seat of your emotions
- Your soul: that eternal, spiritual, hard-to-define element of each person
- Your mind: your mental faculties (See J.P. Moreland’s Love Your God with All Your Mind for more on this. Great book!)
- Your strength: your physical, tangible self.
Then Jesus threw in a runner-up commandment, the second-most important. He said it was almost as important that we love each other…our neighbors, he called them. It’s an obscure command, buried in a list of laws near the middle of Leviticus.
Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. –Leviticus 19:18
Jesus pulled this short verse
out of obscurity and brought it
to the apex of spiritual thought.
Jesus pulled this short verse out of obscurity and brought it to the apex of spiritual thought. He sat it alongside our love for God and bound the two together. Really, all you need is love…and more love.
I like the way Matthew phrases Jesus’ summary statement.
All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. –Matthew 22:40
Hang on these two. That means everything written in the Old Testament—all the history and stories, all the directions and commands, all the poems and good advice—every bit of it points back to loving God and loving each other.
Love. It wasn’t the religious leaders’ strong suit. Just check all of Matthew 23.
For those religious teachers and leaders standing around in the temple courts near Jesus, these commands meant they could put aside the debates about nuances of the law and differences of interpretation.
For the lay people who heard Him, and for us today, these two commands mean a few things.
- We don’t have to understand everything written in the Bible, splitting hairs over what’s permissible and what isn’t. That’s a relief.
- We don’t have to determine our stance on every contentious issue tossed about on our Facebook feed or in the news: complementarian or egalitarian, amillennial or post-millennial, Calvinist or Armenian? And we don’t have to agree with everyone. That’s okay. (Want to explore this further? Read this recent article from RELEVANT Magazine.)
- Our faith isn’t about a list of proscribed actions or about how much we give up for God. The teacher questioning Jesus that day said our love for God and people “is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). Jesus said he was right.
That’s why Oswald Chambers could say,
The spirit of our Lord in His followers is described in 1 Corinthians 13. –My Utmost for His Highest, 1/29
While this may have been a radical idea to the Pharisees and Sadducees, who liked to regulate every aspect of a person’s life (Matthew 23:23), it wasn’t a new idea. Way back before David wrote a psalm or Solomon built the first temple, Samuel told King Saul,
To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. –1 Samuel 15:22
Tie this verse alongside Jesus’ very personal discussion with His disciples later that week:
If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15
Obedience is simply the evidence of our love, the visible mark of our love relationship with God.
It’s never been about the sacrifice.
It’s never been about the laws and commands.
It’s always been about love.
Was this an “ah-ha moment” for that teacher who asked the question? I don’t know. But he, standing so close to Jesus, also got close to the kingdom of God that day.
How does your perspective on the Christ-Life change when you think about everything we practice centering on love? What do you think of this simple approach to obedience? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!
*My apologies to any Beatles fans who thought this post was about their song.
Related: Love = 5M