No Other Commandment Greater Than These
Ordinary 31 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Mark 12: 28 — 34
The approaching close of the Christian year, ending as it does around the last week in November, brings us, (as far as our Gospel readings are concerned) to the last week of our Lord’s ministry. Our text for meditation reports an incident which occurred two days before the Last Supper and the Passover. There are crowds of visitors in Jerusalem and many educated rabbis among them. There is a high level of traditional debate. For those who are open-minded and value listening to the opinion of others, it can be like a peak-experience of personal revelation. Certainly it was a high point of Judaic culture each year.
Shortly before this incident, Jesus had been debating with the Sadducees about an absurd question they posed concerning marriage and resurrection. The Sadducees, we recall, were upper class intellectuals some of whom controlled the Temple and its various operations. In His reply to their unworthy question, Jesus out-foxed them with a brilliant answer. Listening to all this was a Pharisee Scribe who had developed a genuine interest in what our Lord had to say about things. An opportunity presents itself for him to engage in dialogue, the results of which have been passed down to us as one of the treasures of our Faith.
Some Reflections on the Text
One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them
disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked
him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”
The on-looking rabbi now moves to “centre stage”. Impressed that Jesus had very adeptly put the Sadducees in their place, he decides to challenge our Lord with one of the more difficult questions the rabbis debated among themselves. It was, of course, only one of many topics rabbis challenged one another to address and clarify. Our Lord was known not to be an ordained rabbi. However, the scribe honours Jesus not only with the title of “rabbi” (or translated, “Teacher” — see verse 32) but also in seeking His opinion of one of the most all-embracing questions. As is always the case, when Jesus is confronted with honest, enthusiastic enquiry to gain a deeper understanding of divine things, He gives far more than is anticipated, as we shall see.
As we read, the scribe asks Jesus “Of all the commandments (meaning, the 613 obligations derived from Sacred Scripture), which is the first, the most important?” This is rather misleading in English. The scribe actually asked Jesus, as we might express it, “What is the ‘parent commandment‘, the foundation stone of the Torah — the Law of God — the Will of God as expressed in His Teaching, His Word?”
This question is also often posed as: “What is the over-arching Commandment to which all others point?”
Christian writers sometimes, in a demeaning way, make much of the 613 commandments and what was often presented as the excessive burden of the Law. However nowhere is it recorded that Jesus ever denigrated the Torah, the Law of Moses, or the importance of obedience to God’s Law.
What our Lord is shown as despising is the way some (and only some) of the Pharisees in His time reduced the Law of God to a merely mechanical compliance to 613 practices they gleaned from the Scriptures. These false teachers saw that type of compliance, as sufficient to guarantee their purity and automatic acceptance by God. But in so doing, they overlooked that the Torah, the Law or Teaching of God was meant to demonstrate His love for His creatures — it was meant to provide a path of wisdom, of truth leading towards the fullness of life. They had made it a prison, a sea of bondage, a grinding burden — the very opposite of God’s plan
Jesus exposes this whenever He can, for the sakes of the erring rabbis as well as the people they are misleading. If we do not understand this, we miss much of the power and force of the core teaching of Jesus.
Verses 29 — 31
Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord
our God is Lord alone!
You shall 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 shall love your neighbour as
yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Our Lord is thrilled to be asked the question and, accordingly, gives a very clear and direct answer, which must be taken as a single statement. (We could say, as two sides of one coin.) Jesus structured His reply very carefully.
Jesus begins with the command, “Hear or Listen,” in Hebrew, Shema or Sh’ma —
Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!”
“Hear (meaning listen!) O Israel: The Lord is one in His perfect harmony, and the only One who is Lord.” This is the great “Shema” — the central prayer of Judaism and as such is recited morning and evening by the devout, practising Jew. As we know, Jesus followed the rules of Jewish piety and substituted the actual name of God (Jehovah or Yahweh) with the title “Lord” (In Hebrew Adonai).
Jesus then added Deuteronomy 6: 5 —
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all
your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
In other words, “Love the one and only God with the whole of your being in total harmony —
i.e. with your whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, and whole of your body: your whole self.
Let there be no obstacles in the way!”
Jesus follows the tradition of the rabbis and adds Leviticus 19: 18 —
The second is this:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
In other words, “As you (rightly) love yourself, so love your neighbor — not just as much as you love yourself, but with the same unhesitating, unbroken, undivided, unimpeded, unhindered love”.
Jesus crowns His declaration with a unique and magnificent spiritual canopy:
There is no other Commandment greater than these!
Our Lord is not making a statement about the greater or lesser importance of any particular Commandment, for every word God has spoken is important:
He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed
you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers,
in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.
(Deuteronomy 8: 3)
He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread
alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth
of God.” (Matthew 4: 4)
Jesus is saying that the “first of all the Commandments” is a Canopy of Presence. All other Commandments or requirements find their foundation in this two-sided Commandment to love. All other Commandments also point collectively towards this love of God, of self and of neighbour. Love therefore unites everyone and everything.
The first Commandment is therefore both a foundation upon which — as well as a canopy of love under which, we experience the Presence of God whenever we put it into practice. Such action, therefore, spreads the light of God’s Presence in the world and enwraps others in this Sacred Light. That is what the word “greater” refers to: having the widest coverage.
The declaration of Jesus that, “There is no other Commandment greater than these,” indicates without any doubt that He is bequeathing to His Church this “two sided” Commandment of love as the New Shema. His followers will read it, listen to it, meditate upon it and, in fact feed upon it; and as they do so, will grow in their ability to live by it. In two or three days time Jesus will say, “You are to love one another as I have loved you”. He will call it a new commandment because He is the perfect embodiment of His Father’s Commandment to love, and it will be through Him that we can live in total obedience to this Commandment.
This is how our Messiah chose to spread His Message of Love.
Verse 32 and 33
The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right
in Saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’
And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding,
with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’
is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
The scribe is ecstatic and congratulates Jesus on a superb answer. In admiration he repeats our Lord’s answer to honour Jesus even further, and highlights the fact that it places the obligation of undivided love of God and neighbour ahead of the prescribed sacrifices of the Law.
What is so very special in this reply is that Jesus has already demonstrated this in His life. In two days time He will formally declare it to be a prerequisite for becoming His disciple. As we said, it will become the New Shema for the followers of Jesus Messiah — in fact, He will make it even stronger by declaring that His disciples are to love one another as He has loved them. He will empower His followers to love others with His love!
And when Jesus saw that (he) answered with understanding,
he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
It is now Jesus who is ecstatic! In true rabbinic style, each is leading the other on. The use of the words “with understanding,” or “wisely” (Greek: nounechos) refers to this scribe’s genuine habit of “listening” in obedience to the Shema: “Hear O Israel”. Here is a man who listens to God and lives God’s Law with all his ability. To him Jesus responds with the ultimate honour, declaring him “not far from the kingdom of God”.
Certain schools of Christian scholarship like to point out that as a Jew, this man has got about as close as he can hope to get to the kingdom! In this instance, they miss the point, failing as they do to take the context into account.
Jesus is on the brink of His great personal Passover (two days away).
He is only weeks from formally inaugurating His Church. His message to the rabbi in front of Him is really a message to all who would “listen”. “Those who are as open to what I have been teaching, as this rabbi is, are on the brink of having membership of the kingdom conferred on them. They are standing even now at its very threshold, and will be invited to cross over into it.” We do not know whether this particular rabbi chose, in fact, to enter the Church. Many did, and became important leaders in the infant Church.
We close with a quote from St John Chrysostom (A.D. 347 — 407), Bishop of Constantinople. We recommend you read it slowly at least twice. (Do read also the interesting “Biographical Note” on this exceptional preacher.)
Thou shalt love, he says, not: Thou shalt fear. For it is a
greater thing to love than to fear. To fear is the character of
slaves: to love, of children. Fear springs from coercion; love
from liberty. He who serves God in fear will indeed escape
punishment, but does not receive the reward of justice:
because he did good, not freely, but because of fear.
God therefore does not wish that men should fear Him, in
a servile manner, as an owner, but love Him as a Father;
since He gave men the Spirit of adoption.
To love God with thy whole heart means the heart is not
inclined to the love of any one thing more than it is to the
love of God. To love God with thy whole soul means to keep
the soul steadfast in truth, and to be firm in faith. For one
is the love of the heart, another the soul’s love, the love of
the heart is in a certain measure carnal; as we also love God
with our bodily heart which we cannot do unless we
withdraw our hearts from the love of worldly things. The
love of the heart therefore is felt in the heart. The love of
the soul is not felt, but perceived; for it consists in a
judgment of the soul. For he who believes that with God
is all good, and that outside of Him there is nothing of good,
he loves God with his whole heart.
To love God with thy whole mind means that all the faculties
are at the disposition of God: he whose understanding serves
God, whose wisdom concerns God, whose thought dwells on
the things of God, whose memory is mindful only of His
blessing, loves God with his whole mind.
(St John Chrysostom, Opus Imperfection 42)
We close with an ancient Hebrew Blessing
which has continued to be included in our prayer books and breviaries
since the earliest days of the Church.
May the Lord open your heart to His Law and
His Commandments; and may the Lord send you peace. Amen.
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“Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature”
(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so,
No Other Commandment Greater Than These
Ordinary 31 Year B St. Mark 12: 28 — 34
1. In the Sacred Scriptures (Bible), there are many commandments. These form the basis of Hebrew-Christian teaching. The most common term for this instruction and teaching is the Hebrew word ‘Torah’. This word is often used to refer to the first five books of the Bible, but it is also used to include the whole of God’s Word. For many Christians, the term also includes the New Testament Scriptures. We should note that the word, ‘Law’ does not actually convey the full meaning of ‘Torah,’ which contains a sense of direction: instruction and a path to follow to help us reach the life God planned for us. We can easily see why Jesus claimed one day, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14: 6). He is the Word of God, opening to us paths by which we will learn the truth about God, and reach the life He designed us to enjoy with Him.
When challenged to do so, Jesus distilled all of the Torah, the teaching of the Scriptures — the words about God, into a two sided command to love. We are to love God with every fibre of our being and to love ourselves and our neighbours in the same way. And He made it clear, that in loving ourselves and our neighbours as He taught, we would thereby love God at the same time.
2. Our Lord recited parts of the Torah every single morning and evening. His prayer therefore, always commenced with — “Shema” — Hear! — Listen!
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone.”
Among other Scriptures He included the customary words:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
When asked to recite the very core or essence of God’s Law, Jesus quoted the above, and following the tradition of the rabbis, also added:
“You shall love your neighbour as yourself”
When Jesus said, “There is no other commandment greater than these,” this was a signal to His followers to uphold the same priority, and an invitation to recite this great Commandment of Love with Him daily. It was His gift, His New Shema, to His disciples.
You can read more about the Shema by clicking here.
3. Our Lord’s use of the word ‘greater’ points towards the effect this Commandment has when implemented. We talk of “Greater London” in the old Latin sense of the wider field of reference (city and outer suburbs) — not one London being more important than another, even if there were another.
So ‘greater,’ in this context, means what has the wider scope or effect or outreach.
To love as Jesus requires implies we are to take the light of God’s love to the outer reaches of the world. The Commandment of love is therefore to be a great light signalling God’s desire to shelter all His creatures within His care and loving presence.
People who love as Jesus commanded are very much bearers of the light of Christ shining in the darkness of hardship, loneliness and despair. It is an awesome calling, and every soul is able to participate fully in this great outreach, wherever they are, simply by choosing to do so!
Blessed be God!
Mark 12: 28 ― 34
Ordinary 31 Year B
28 5 One of the scribes, when he came forward and
29 Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel!
30 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as
32 The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are
33 And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your
34 And when Jesus saw that (he) answered with
5 [28-34] See the note on ⇒ Matthew 22:34-40.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised