Gospel: Mark 12:28-34

What's Most Important?

What is the highest value of our culture? How does that single value arrange other values?

When we ignore the rhetoric and simply look at someone's lifestyle (ourselves or others), we'll soon learn the answer to the question: what's most important? The question asks more than values. It points toward a life orientation. It helps to answer the greater question: what is the purpose of life?

In a relationship with God, we can ask the same question: what's most important? How does that question impact our prayer life, our family life, our social life? What one principle or character trait tells others we are followers of Christ?

A scribe asked Jesus that question. While Jesus' answer may have been a common one at the time, the underlining understanding Jesus gave the answer changed more than his followers. It changed the world.

Popular Translation

28 After he heard Jesus and the Sadducees debating, a scribe saw Jesus answered their argument well. So he approached Jesus with a question: "What commandment are the most important and guides our understanding of all the others?"

"The first is this," Jesus answered,

"'Listen, Israel! Our God is God, the only God!

30 You must love the Lord our God with all your heart, your spirit, your mind, and your strength.'

31 The second is this:

'You must love everyone else like yourself.'

No other commandments are greater than these."

32 "Well done, Teacher!" the scribe responded. "You're right when you said:

'He is the only God and there is no other god besides him,'

'Love the God with everything you have,'

33 and, 'love your neighbor as yourself.'

Obeying these commandments is worth far more than all the worship in the Temple at Jerusalem!"

34 Jesus saw the scribe answered wisely. So Jesus replied, "You're not far from God's Kingdom." Nobody dared to ask Jesus anymore questions.

This gospel narrative was one of the few times Jesus and the Pharisees would agree. They looked at the Torah through the same lens, unlike the Sadducees or the Herodians who had different priorities. Jesus and his opponents, the Pharisees, used the principle of love (i.e., fidelity) as a yardstick to measure religious practice.

Literal Translation

28 After he had heard them disputing, having seen that HE answered them well, one of the scribes, having approached (HIM), asked HIM, "What sort of commandment is first of all?" 29 JESUS answered, "First is: 'Hear Israel, the Lord (is) our God; the Lord is one. 30 You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul,' all your mind, 'and all your strength.'"

12:28 This would be a very confusing sentence in English due to the lack of case endings in the English language. To make sense in English, participial phrases were rearranged.

"What sort of commandment is first of all?" The word "first" meant more than the "first in order" or the "most important." The word "first" ("protos" in Greek) also meant "guiding principle." The "first" commandment would provide the key that would unlock the religious philosophy of Jesus, how he envisioned the relationship of people with God.

12:29 "Hear Israel, the Lord (is)our God; the Lord is one." This phrase, taken from Deuteronomy 6:4, is known as the Shema (from the imperative "hear!" in Hebrew). This phrase and the command to love God together form THE defining phrase for the Jew. This phrase signifies a Jew as much as the Sign of the Cross signifies the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Christian.

The phrase itself could be translated in two ways. First, the phrase could be translated in the narrow sense of Jewish allegiance to a particular God: YHWH. (Please note that the word "Lord" replaced YHWH in Hebrew, out of deference to the Second Commandment.) In this sense, the phrase could be translated: "Hear, Israel! YHWH is our only God." In the time of the kings, Israelites did not question the existence of other gods from other nations. But, their God was the only one that matter. No doubt, this was the original sense of the phrase, when Israelite lived among many polytheistic peoples.

However, by the time Jesus preached, the phrase had a much broader interpretation. In the first century AD, Judaism was strictly monotheistic. No other gods existed but YHWH. In this sense, the phrase could be translated "Hear Israel! YHWH is our God. YHWH is the only (God)." The translation above reflects the broader, monotheistic interpretation than that of simple national, allegiance. (See 12:32).

12:30 "'all your heart, . . . ' all your mind . . . " The phrase "all your mind" was an addition Jesus made to Deuteronomy 6:5. Since ancients believed the heart was the center of thoughts and emotions, the second phrase "all your mind" was redundant. Possibly this "doublet" reflected Jesus' emphasis on the interior intent; what came from the heart was more important than strict adherence to the Torah.

The scribe asked Jesus a question about importance in the Law. And Jesus gave a straightforward answer. Obviously, an answer about the Law should come from the Law. So Jesus quoted Scripture.

The question of importance, as the note stated above, was one of guiding principle. Through this one command, one could create a hierarchy with the other commands, give direction to their enforcement, and a symbol that encompassed the meaning of Judaism.

Even in the time of Jesus, rabbis realized that some commands in the Torah carried more weight than others. After all, gleaning wheat germ on the Sabbath was not as important as a prohibition against adultery. And, the Ten Commandments themselves were written in order of importance.

Beyond the question of hierarchy, however, came the question of justice and mercy. How should a judge enforce these commands when circumstances pulled at the question in different directions?

Finally came the question of social expression. How do these commands proclaim YHWH among the nations, as well as unite the community of believers? What command could the faithful use to show they were Jews?

Jesus answered the first part of that question with the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Love God with all your being. Love in this sense was not an inner emotion or psychological state alone. In the time and culture of Jesus, love meant allegiance. As God made a covenant with his people (a formal allegiance between a king and his subjects), he demanded a response. A commitment and a faithful life to that allegiance (i.e., covenant) was the only answer. Notice that the command was pointed at the nation and the individual. God wanted faithful individuals to form a faithful community. The individual was to take ownership of his or her response and take responsibility for the type of community he or she lived in. Taking both types of ownership was implicit in the command: "Love God."

31 "The second (is) this: 'You will love your neighbor as yourself.' There is not another commandment greater than these."

12:31 "You will love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus quoted Leviticus 19:18 for this command. Leviticus 19 is known as the Holiness Codes, for the name of YHWH is invoked more times in this chapter than any other place in the Torah. A closer view of this chapter revealed a symmetric pattern for the use of the name. Since Leviticus 19:18 lay at the very center of this pattern, this command stood out in rabbinical thought as the pinnacle of God's commands in Leviticus.

The term "neighbor" meant "fellow countryman." In the thought of Jesus' contemporaries, charity may extend to the alien, but love was reserved for the fellow Jew. Of course, Luke 10:22-37 (the story of the Good Samaritan) included everyone in the command.

Jesus backed up the Shema with another important verse: love of neighbor. This meant allegiance to one's community. Of course, different groups could interpret this phrase in different ways.

What did love for one's neighbor mean to the followers of the Nazarene? For the evangelizing Christians, love meant a certain openness to the stranger, the outcast, and the sinner. For many Christians had found themselves with those titles in the past. In addition, it meant caring for those who had no one else to care for them: widows and orphans. Finally, it meant a code of conduct that showed the utmost fidelity to community itself. They clung to each other for survival, for strength, and for growth. After all, this was what was meant by the phrase: "Christians! See how they love one another!"

Christianity was built on charity, caring for others regardless for their background. Charity embodied the Christian interpretation of Leviticus 19:18.

32 The scribe said to HIM, "Well (done), TEACHER. Truly you spoke (he) is one and there is no other except him, 33 and to love him with your whole heart, with your whole understanding, and with all your strength, and to love (one's) neighbor as (one's) self is much more (than) of all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 JESUS, seeing that he answered wisely, said to him, "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." No one dared to ask him (anything) any longer.

12:32 "(he) is one and there is no other except him" combined Deu. 6:4 (He is one) with Deu. 4:35 (there is no other except him). This combination of verses supported a strict monotheism among the Jews, common at the time of Jesus.

12:33 "much more (than) of all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" The scribe asserted a central tenant of Pharisees: obedience to these two commands in the Law was greater than the worship system of the Temple. In this case, the Christians sided with the Pharisees against the Sadducees, the Temple elite and city fathers in Jerusalem.

12:34 "You are not far from the Kingdom of God." Jesus indicated the scribe was ready to hear the Good News and become a follower.

The scribe responded to Jesus' answer with enthusiasm. Yes, the Law could be summed up with a strict monotheism and a strict fidelity to the community. These two commands meant more than any worship in the Temple. But beyond this agreement lay disagreements on means? How do you love God and neighbor? For the Christian, the answer could be found in a relationship with Jesus. He was the means to the Father. He was the brother that could be found in the face of other people.

Agreement on these two guiding commands and their shared quality of allegiance became the starting point for proclaiming the Good News. Yes, one could live his or her life trying to love God and neighbor, but there was a better way. Believe in the One who had lived the commandment perfectly. Believe in the One who could help the faithful along the way.

Catechism Theme: Overview to the Ten Commandments (CCC 2052-2055)

Christianity has always used the "Great Commandment" as a lens to view the Ten Commandments. The first three commandments fulfill love of God. The last seven fulfill love of neighbor. Living out the Great Commandment fulfills the Law (see Romans 13:9-10).

But, the command to love demands more. To love God requires God's help. It requires an openness to the Spirit. We cannot possibly live out God's Law by ourselves. With his help, we can hope and we can experience results.

What is this the most important value in your faith? What religious insight or practice has had the greatest impact on your life? Who exemplifies that insight or practice or value in your life?

What's most important? What's first? With apologies to the late Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, the question can be put another way for the Christian. Who's on first? Just as that line set up the classic comedy routine, that line sets up our perspective on life. Who's on first in our life? Is it us or Jesus? If the answer is us, we're on our own. For, we have put ourselves in God's place. So there is no room for God or others. If, however, the answer is Jesus, we can rest assured God is helping us to love him with our very being and everyone else as ourselves.

Who's on first? For most of us, the answer to the question vacillates between us and God. What can you do this week to place more of the focus on God? How can he help you to love him more and see everyone around as your equal?