Mark 12:28-34 (NRSV)
The First Commandment
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
There’s an old saying of unclear origin that says you should never discuss politics or religion either at the dinner table or in polite company. As a maxim, it has held for a long time because it was thought to be uncouth to dive in to topics that could arouse such passionate responses in courteous conversation (though Trump, Brexit and 2018 have made it hard to stick to). In Jesus’ world, however, such passion and debate were not frowned upon — they were part of the fabric of community life, particularly in the Temple where this week’s Gospel reading is set. It’s strange to imagine a world where scribes and scholars could overhear public arguments and jump in to the cut and the thrust of the debate. It’s like somebody taking joy in diving into a YouTube comment section — a masochistic instinct that I do not share.
The new debate that the unnamed scribe starts with Jesus is a famous and common one at the time: ‘Which commandment is the greatest?’ It may not be a thrilling discussion in our churches today but, for observant Jews in the first century, this was central. They sought to obey all the commandments but, when you have 613, you start to realise that some may be more important than others. If that’s the case, then which commandment should rise to the top as the most important of all?
To Jesus, there are two interconnected commandments that sum up the Torah. The first is the ’Shema’:
Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
These verses would have been memorised, prayed and repeated daily by faithful Jews.
The second is from Leviticus 19:18:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
The conversation almost seems mundane. And yet, beyond the obvious, Jesus makes a subtle addition to these well-known verses. He adds that you must love God 'with all your mind’ … That’s not in the Shema. What we might miss, the scribe does not. He repeats and elaborates, ’to love him with all the heart, and all the understanding …’ and then adds, ’this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.’
While the conversation starts out defining the most important commandment to be obeyed, Jesus and the scribe enter into a second conversation about the way in which we obey. Do we obey through unquestioning, unthinking discipline? Or do we love God with our minds in how we wrestle with the Law and seek to understand it?
Some of my friends who grew up in Christian circles spent their childhoods being told not to overthink faith. Simply trust and obey.
In and of itself, trusting and obeying are good things.
But Jesus invites us to love and to worship with our minds. To understand. To dive deep. To wrestle. To think it through.
Considering it’s Halloween, let me put it like this: Jesus wants your brains.
Scott Evans is the Church of Ireland chaplain to University College Dublin, producer of The Graveyard Shift Podcast and co-founder of Paradoxology, a prayer space at Ireland’s Electric Picnic music festival. He grew up in Bangladesh and his life has been a series of crazy decisions, odd adventures and bad haircuts. He is also the author of 3 books, Closer Still, Beautiful Attitudes and Failing From The Front (& Other Lessons From The Lives of Losers.) He loves Vietnamese food, coffee, writing, Aston Villa and Jesus.