Sisters and Brothers,
One of the things that the four Gospels agree on is that there are good people among the different clashing parties. In this passage, we are told of a teacher of the law (a Scribe) who asks a question after deciding that Jesus was worthy of some respect.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Rather than answering with one of the ten commandments, Jesus first answers with a quote of Deuteronomy 6:4-5. It is a passage that the Jews call the “shema” (the Hebrew word for “Hear”) and it is a foundational statement in daily Jewish prayer and the celebration of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Jesus adds Leviticus 19:18, which is an essential statement of ethical living. If a person were to live by these two rules, they would already be living according to the other commandments. A person who loves God with all and loves neighbor as self would not kill, steal, bear false witness, etc..
The answer Jesus gives impresses the Scribe who questioned him.
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
So, Jesus pays the Scribe a great compliment, and that leaves everyone speechless. His answer is so good, and the scribes apparent joy at this good answer is a peculiar change of tone after other Scribes, Pharisees, temple leaders, and Sadducees have debated with Jesus. No one was expecting such a touching moment between Jesus and a member of one of the parties who worked against him.
Many of the later converts to Christianity came from all walks of Jewish life. John Mark, the man who wrote the Gospel of Mark(while working with Simon Peter) would have been trained as a Scribe (a teacher of the law). Later Christian leaders like Paul came from a background as a Pharisee. We are told that one of the twelve disciples was a Zealot, the party who rebelled against Roman rule.
It is a peculiar that some later Christians blamed Jews for the death of Jesus. Jesus and all his disciples were Jews. Most of the people who he healed and taught were Jewish, and in the early days of the church Christians met for worship in synagogues. The real separation of Jews and Christians happened over centuries of Roman oppression and then was solidified as Christianity became mainstreamed centuries later. Christianity also spread through many pagan cultures that lacked respect and understanding of the Church’s Jewish roots. To put it simply, Christians are followers of Jesus, but Jesus never stopped being a Jew.
If you pay attention to the content of what Jesus has said, the message of our kinship with Judaism is very deep.
What are the two most important commandments?
‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
These commandments to “Israel” are our commandments as well. “Israel” here is not the land of Israel in the distant past or present, but all Jews (and by adoption, all followers of the God of the Old Testament).
Most people who are Jewish don’t identify Jesus as the messiah promised in the Old Testament, but they accept that we do. There is even some respect for Jesus in Jewish writings, but they would like it if we lived more according to his teachings. Jewish communities around the world have suffered many centuries of persecution by people claiming to be Christians. In Europe, the only group that Christians have killed more than the Jews is fellow Christians under other flags.
So, we need to go back to these commandments and take Jesus at his word. This is what is most important: Love God, and love neighbor as self. We know that Jesus identified both friends and enemies as neighbor. We are called to change the world with devotion and love, not with bloodshed and not by being fearsome.
A Questions to Ponder: How can the behaviors of “loving God” and “loving neighbor” work hand in hand?