Friday, November 15, 2013

Mark 12:28–34

Mark 12:28–34 (ESV): The Great Commandment


In the last passage Jesus swatted down some Sadducees who wanted to fight about the resurrection. In this passage we are told that one of the scribes overheard that conversation and was impressed with the answer Jesus gave, so he asks Jesus a further question: Which commandment is the most important one?

Jesus goes him one better and offers two commandments:
  1. He first quotes Deuteronomy 6:4–5 (ESV), saying: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.”
  2. He then says that the second most important commandment is from Leviticus 19:18 (ESV), which tells us to love our neighbour as ourself.
The scribe tells Jesus that he agrees with him, and says that to love God with all heart, understanding, and strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, are much more than any burnt offerings or sacrifices (verse 33 (ESV)). Jesus then tells the man that he is not far from the kingdom of God, after which nobody asks Jesus any more questions.


I’m not 100% sure if this scribe is testing Jesus or if he’s really honestly asking. He seems to be testing Jesus, and his response to Jesus’ response indicates that he thought he knew the answer all along. (In retrospect, it seems very condescending for him to have told the Word of God that he is correct in his answer, as he would have if Jesus were a student.) The only thing that makes me hesitate is Jesus’ attitude toward the scribe; when asked the question he seems to be answering it seriously, and when the scribe condescends to tell Jesus that he was correct Jesus replies positively: this man is not far from the kingdom of God. I’m wondering, therefore, if this man really was engaging in an actual dialogue with Jesus, not just testing him. At the very least, even if it was a test, Jesus sees into the man’s heart and knows that the conversation is going to end in a positive place.

What’s interesting to me—and I honestly don’t know if this would have been surprising for Jesus’ listeners or not—is that when asked about the most important commandment Jesus doesn’t give any of the ten commandments, which are the ones that so many of us consider to be the “big ones.” This kind of goes toward what the scribe said back to Jesus: loving God supremely, and loving others as much as you love yourself, are more important than any sacrifices, more important than any laws, even the ten commandments.

Actually, there’s another interesting point on the commands Jesus lists: If you actually go to Leviticus 19:18 (ESV) and read the whole verse, loving your neighbour is only part of that verse:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.
Interesting! Loving your neighbour is just part of a larger command, that the Israelites were not to take vengeance. In fact, it’s simply given as contrast to the vengeance. What’s the opposite of taking vengeance? Loving your neighbour as you love yourself. So the command, as given to the Israelites, is that they shouldn’t take vengeance but should love people; when Jesus is asked about the greatest command he gives only the second half of that: love people. In reading the original command I would have seen the emphasis as being on the prohibition against vengeance, and the concept of loving people as just reinforcing the point; apparently Jesus sees loving people as actually being the primary focus of this command, and not taking vengeance as something that comes from loving people properly.

It has been said many times that all other laws fall out of these two laws; that if you were to keep these two rules perfectly you would, by their very nature, also be keeping all of the other rules. Actually I guess I wouldn’t go quite that far; I think that statement applies to Christians, but maybe not to Israelites under the Old Testament laws. For example, if you love God supremely and love your neighbours as yourself then it would naturally follow that you wouldn’t murder anyone, you wouldn’t steal, you wouldn’t commit adultery, there are a bunch of things that would naturally come from that, but there are, for example, some dietary laws that you wouldn’t obey unless you knew the law and made an effort to obey it. You can love God supremely and love your neighbour as yourself, but it wouldn’t follow naturally to not eat pork unless you were specifically told not to eat pork. But maybe I’m splitting hairs on that.

I sometimes hear Christians talking about this passage as if loving God supremely were the easy part and loving our sinful neighbours is the hard part, but I don’t know that I agree with that. I mean, I definitely agree that it’s sometimes difficult to love our neighbours; we have a habit of holding them accountable for their sins in a way that we don’t hold ourselves accountable for our own, and of course when we do that it’s difficult to love them properly. But I don’t know that I agree with it being easy, or easier, to love God as we should. Because of the great sin we carry around with us, I think it’s sometimes difficult to see God for who He is, and I think we sometimes instinctively pull away from getting too close to him. I’m guessing that most Christians who read that statement would mostly disagree—“of course I want to be close to God!”—but that there might be a small part of their mind (which they’re trying to ignore) which says that, yeah, it’s kind of true, it can be uncomfortable to get too close to God because the closer you get to Him, the more you compare and contrast yourself to Him, and the more terrible you look in your own eyes.

I think there is also a fear of the consequences—fear of what He might ask of us. I heard a sermon by Timothy Keller recently in which he was mentioning a conversation he’d had with a woman in his church, the general argument of which was that Grace is actually a scary thing: if it were up to us to get to God, if we got there on our own merit by following particular rules or by doing particular things, then there would only be so much that He could ask of us, but if it’s all due to Grace, if we did nothing to deserve it and He did everything, then there is no limit as to what He can ask of us. When we come to terms with that, when we realize that God is not only loving toward us but also has the right to make demands of us, loving Him might not seem like such a no-brainer.

Thanks to Grace, however, it is something that our new natures crave, even if our old natures cringe from it. This is part of the struggle the Christian faces: our new nature wants to get close to God, wants to love Him, and anything He asks of us our new nature wants to do, knowing that doing so will make us more like Him, and draw us closer to Him; our sinful natures, on the other hand, are very much afraid of what He’ll ask of us, what He’ll ask us to do, what He’ll ask us to give up.

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