“For our sakes he suffered all the agonies of body and mind, and did not shrink from any torment. He gave us a perfect example of patience and love.” – St. Francis of Paola
Mark 12:28-37: One of the scribes who had listened to them debating and had observed how well Jesus had answered them, now came up and put a question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true: that he is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.
Later, while teaching in the Temple, Jesus said, ‘How can the scribes maintain that the Christ is the son of David? David himself, moved by the Holy Spirit, said: The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand and I will put your enemies under your feet. David himself calls him Lord, in what way then can he be his son?’ And the great majority of the people heard this with delight.
Christ the Lord This is the last in a series of questions that the “experts” in Jerusalem posed in order to discredit Jesus. Their efforts failed. In the end, “no one dared to question him anymore.”
Sometimes we become so familiar with the figure of Christ as he appears in the Gospels that we forget the surpassing dignity and authority of his personality. If we were to meet him on the street, we would immediately sense something about him that set him completely apart. If we were to engage in a conversation with him in an airport waiting area or at a bus station, we would be impressed and attracted by the magnetism and quiet strength of his character. We should try to picture the marvelous figure of the Lord as he vanquishes Israel’s most intelligent and powerful leaders in this battle of wits. These elite intellectuals and trendsetters intimidated the average citizen into obsequious obedience and cowering respect, but they met their match in the Lord.
Christ the Teacher Jesus’ first lesson in this passage came in linking forever the commandment to love God with the commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself. If all we did in our spiritual lives were to strive to our utmost to fulfill these commandments, we would very soon be saints.
In Jesus’ time, this answer was most likely surprising because it put love for neighbor on par with love for God. No one had ever done that before; everyone simply agreed that loving God came first. In our day, perhaps the more surprising aspect is the priority Jesus gives to loving God. The postmodern world has, in many ways, given up on the idea of God. The sheer quantity of religions and denominations and their inability to agree on doctrines has created a cynical indifference to God. What the seculars do agree about, however, is the importance of loving one’s neighbor. Tolerance, diversity, random acts of kindness: these are things we can sink our teeth into, so they say. And yet, is it really possible to make the sustained effort necessary for a truly Christian love of neighbor without staying connected to the reason why our neighbor ought to be loved? If I don’t love the God in whose image my neighbor is created, how long and how deeply can I really love my neighbor?
After exhorting his listeners to love, Jesus right away backs up his words with a deed. He has silenced his detractors, having answered all the questions they put to him; now he asks a question of his own. If they had been sincere in their questioning, by his answers they would have already recognized in him the Messiah, but instead they only seethed with resentment. So Jesus gives them yet another chance. He quotes a passage from the Psalms that implies that the Messiah will not only be a descendant of King David, but will also be somehow superior to the great king. He is turning their minds to the Old Testament scriptures in order to open their minds to his New Testament claims. It was a generous move, one they didn’t deserve, giving them one last chance to think things through. He really did practice what he preached: he loved his neighbors, even his enemies, until the end, when he tried to win over their hearts with the warmth of the truth.
Christ the Friend By the response of this questioner, we can tell that he was not a hypocrite, like Jesus’ other interrogators. Perhaps he had his suspicions about this rabbi from Galilee who was making such a stir in Jerusalem, and so he came to find out for himself if Jesus was just another flash-in-the-pan demagogue or the real thing. So he poses a question that makes the perfect litmus test: which is the greatest commandment? The commandments that governed Israel’s relationship with God were many. The Jewish leaders at the time of Christ were in an ongoing discussion about the relative importance of them. The most influential rabbinic schools agreed that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” was indeed the greatest of all commandments. If Jesus had stated something else, this scribe would have known that he could not be trusted.
But, much to the inquirer’s delight, Jesus gives him the right answer – expressing it forcibly. And the scribe acknowledges Christ’s wisdom and acumen, reiterating the answer in his own words (the hypocritical Pharisees would never have done something like that). And because of this sincerity and sound conviction, Christ approves of the scribe and encourages him to continue serving God as he has been doing. We can almost hear the surprised pleasure in Christ’s voice, finally having found a leader in Israel who cares more for what is true than for power and prestige. We can also imagine the surprised satisfaction of the scribe at receiving such a glowing commendation from Jesus. What started as a cold, suspicious encounter became the planting of the seed of friendship.
When we come to the Lord with a sincere, open heart, we will always find a welcome – after all, that’s why he came, to give seeking hearts an everlasting home.
Christ in My Life I am sure you have much more you want to teach me, more you want me to do. But I can’t help wondering: am I really listening to you? Or am I kind of like the Pharisees, who had plenty of contact with you but were so absorbed by their own plans, hopes, and ideas that their minds were closed to what you had to say? O Jesus, open my eyes; let me hear you and follow you…
You make things so simple, Lord. All I have to do is love God with all my strength, and love my neighbor as myself. How I long to want only that in life! That is what you created me for. You are infinitely loveable, the source of all good things. And my neighbor – all my neighbors, without exception, are created by you and loved by you. O Jesus, make my heart overflow with love…
Teach me to pray, Lord. I know I have asked you this before, but I ask again: really teach me to pray, please. I long for your wisdom to shed its light in my mind. I long for your love to inflame my heart. I long for your strength to steel my weak will…. You have called me to be your apostle – now please, make me what you want me to be…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art for this post on Mark 12:28-37: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Modified detail of Church of the Immaculate Conception (Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana), interior, relief, angels with the greatest commandments, photographed by Nheyob, 9 February 2012 own work, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported, Wikimedia Commons.