Friday, February 18, 2011

There is no other commandment greater than these

Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?" Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is 'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." So the scribe said to Him, "Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." But after that no one dared question Him.

- Mark 12:28-34

In yesterday's reading, Jesus' quizzers are still coming forth. They are in the temple, and Jesus is being questioned. First is a group of Pharisees and Herodians, who ask Him about paying taxes to Caesar. They are trying to trap Him -- if He approves of paying, then the people will dislike Him; if He disapproves, then the Roman authorities will be alerted. But Jesus sidesteps this dilemma with His own response, pointing to a coin of the realm, with Caesar's picture and inscription on it. Next, a group of Sadducees quiz Him about the resurrection, and a case in which one woman was married successively to seven brothers, without offspring. Jesus tells them they have it quite wrong - they know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. He tells them, "He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living."

In today's reading we have yet another quiz for Jesus, and this time he appears in the form of a scribe. Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?" "The scribes," says my study bible, "are a professional class of experts in the Mosaic Law. While most of them were hostile to Jesus, this one seems to be a sincere inquirer." So, we understand, once again, that the question reflects the concerns of the questioner and his position or perspective. Being an expert in the Law, the scribe poses his best for Jesus. Perhaps each of these questions in this sequence of readings can be taken to reflect the perspective of each class; however, through the Gospels, we know there were exceptions to all of them. We are told of Jesus' supporters also from the ruling classes, the wealthy elite and the powerful religious leadership.

Jesus' answers, we have seen, also reflect the perspective of the questioner. He is either direct or indirect, depending on the source. In yesterday's reading, we commented on His teachings and how they are tailored for every audience He addresses. Today He answers this scribe directly and clearly. Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is 'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' This is the first commandment." My study bible notes, "In response, Jesus quotes Deut. 6:4, 5, the greatest Jewish confession of faith, called the shema' (meaning 'hear,' the first word of the confession)." Before all things, is this first commandment - but Jesus adds a second in answer to this question.

And the second, like it, is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." My study bible says that, in this verse, Jesus quotes Lev. 19:18, "combining what is already in the Old Testament to create a new understanding: love of neighbor is an expression of love of God." It is a deeper understanding also of the process of what it is to truly worship, and to have the depth of relationship with God we are asked to build. Not only is there a single God, but to worship with all we are is to build, in fact, union. Through our love for God, Who is love, we express that love in our world.

So the scribe said to Him, "Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible, "the words of Deut. 6:4, which are both preface to, and part of, the first commandment, define qualitatively the wholeness of the love that God requires." This the scribe has grasped. Sacrifices were only offered in the temple in Jerusalem -- we recall that it is Jesus who, in His first act of confrontation in Jerusalem, swept the temple clean of the sellers and money-changers for sacrifice. My study bible says, "The scribe's insight has penetrated beyond the Pharisees' obsession with outward forms. He understands that the condition of the heart is central to righteousness."

Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." But after that no one dared question Him. My study bible notes that "this scribe's wisdom and honesty bring him not far from the kingdom of God. Only God can say who is, and who is not, far from His Kingdom." Of course, the kingdom of God is also there in the presence of Jesus. In tomorrow's reading, Jesus will become the questioner of the scribes, and He will add His own feelings about the scribes as a class. But this individual comes to Him and is "not far from the kingdom of God." It is an important understanding, then, couched within this discussion of our relationship to God, of how we each come to God, as individuals - "with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and all our strength." Therefore we must never let any appellation or characterization of a "group" blind us to this understanding of God's love for each individual creature, and the potential therein for this relationship of love.

In a 4th century commentary, St. Maximos the Confessor calls this "the commandment of love." He writes, "Do not neglect the commandment of love; for through it you will become a son of God, but transgressing it you will become a son of gehenna. Love between friends is destroyed if you envy or are the object of envy; if you cause or suffer loss; if you revile or suffer revilement; and finally if you feed and keep suspicious thoughts against your brother .. Do not be conquered by hatred but conquer by love ... Pray God sincerely about him, accept his excuses or cure yourself by excusing him, regard yourself as the cause of the trial and resolve to endure until the cloud has passed. ...hasten to make your peace with him, lest you forsake the commandment of love. Fear keeps the old commandments, but that love keeps the life-giving commandments of Christ."

Let us consider, then, the law of love and how it works. God, who is love, becomes a part of us when we truly worship "with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and all our strength." To be in this kind of growing union, or communion, throughout our lives is to grow in God-likeness. We must be careful what we worship -- there is only room for one God. In a very pertinent sense, this is exactly what St. Maximos conveys above. There is only room for one God, and what is in our heart must reflect that. Let everything else go that conflicts with it, he is saying, and keep the commandment of love. How do you work on that today? To love is not an invitation for abuse or denial, but a sincere response in relationship to life and to God. Let us understand where and how it begins, and let the gospels teach us how to live its love. We are not born knowing perfect love, but we come to God and grow in relationship, and learn that love -- this is His greatest commandment.