One of the scribes came up to Jesus 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 you 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.Mk 12:28-34
Jesus is approached by a learned Scribe intending to put him to the test about which is the first or “greatest” commandment. According to St. Augustine (Harmony of the Evangelists 2:73) the Scribe does not approach with the intention of deceiving, but rather as a cautious man wishing to establish the yet unknown credentials of Jesus.
Jesus summarises the teaching of the entire Old Covenant in two commandments. The greatest of these two commandments is taken from Deut. 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord.” This is known as the Shema prayer (Shema is Hebrew for ‘hear”). The Israelites considered this passage a creedal summary of their faith in the one God of the universe. The second is taken from Lev. 19:18: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Together, these injunctions to love God and neighbour underlie the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20; Deut. 5) and all 613 precepts of the Mosaic Law. The refinement of Yahweh’s revealed law into two commandments was prefigured by the two stone tablets of the Decalogue (Exod. 34).
The Scribe highlights the moral laws of God as superior to the sacrificial laws of the Temple. His statement reflects what was often stated in the Old Testament (1 Sam. 15; Judith 16; Ps. 40; Hos. 6; Micah 6) but tended to be overlooked at times. Holocausts and sacrifices are good, but they are not so necessary and pleasing to God as is charity. Charity is the animating principle of the spiritual life, without which all else is “as a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor. 13:1). The Scribe acknowledges the righteousness of Christ’s answer and for this is praised as being “not far from the kingdom of God,” i.e. not far from understanding and embracing the entire teaching of the Gospel.
Director, Mission & Identity