“Which is the first of all the commandments? … This is the first: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the One Lord, and you must 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 must love your neighbour as yourself’” (Mark 12: 29-32)
Our journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, a distance of about 137 kilometres, came to an end in the Eleventh Chapter of the Gospel of Mark, that is just after the cure of the blind Bartimaeus that we encountered last week. Between Chapters Eleven and the last chapter of the Gospel, (16), Mark records a day-to-day event of Jesus in Jerusalem during His last week on earth, beginning with the Triumphal Entry of the Palm Sunday through the Holy Week climaxed in His Resurrection. The periscope of the Gospel we have today must have taken place on the Tuesday of the Holy Week, after He had cleansed the temple on Monday, sending out the money-changers and upturning their tables (Mark 11: 1-19). The next day, which begins from the encounter with the Withered Fig Tree (Mark 11: 20-26), Jesus is in the temple once again, and He is accosted by the powerful authorities of the Jewish society on various issues: first, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders queried His authority for acting the way He did (Mark 11: 27-33); then the Pharisees and the Herodians came up with the intension of incriminating Him with their complex question about paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12: 13-17); and then came the Sadducees, the aristocratic priestly class, who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, to test Him on the subject (Mark 12: 18-27). It was after all these barrage of challenges that this particular teacher of the Law, “who had been listening to these discussions and admired how Jesus answered them”, then came up to Jesus to put this question to Him: “Which commandment is the first of all?” (Mark 12: 28). Unlike the others, who came in groups, this man came alone, with no plots nor schemes to disconcert Jesus. His intention was sincere. Sometimes it is good for us to approach Jesus alone, to state our case, ask our innermost questions and express our deepest longings in humility. The connection is personal and peculiar, and most likely, more effective, as we shall soon see.
Ordinarily, it would be easy to answer: “You shall have no other God but Me” (Exodus 20: 3). But the question of the teacher of Law and the answer of Jesus were necessary because it was not just the Ten Commandments that they were referring to here. It was the Torah, which was the first-five books of Moses, and the core text for the guidelines of every Jewish life. In this was contained 613 commandments – 365 prohibitions and 248 prescriptions. So the question then really was, which of all these is the most important? Which mattered the most? What does loyalty to God mean?
Jesus was quite aware of this background and also seeing his sincerity answered: “This is the first: ‘Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the One Lord, and you must 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 must love your neighbour as yourself’” (Mark 12: 29-32). Let me point out the generosity of Jesus here in giving the answer. The man asked for only the first, but Jesus adds a second. Remember Matthew 5: 41: “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two lies.”
The answers of Jesus are not new; in fact, they were both taken from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6: 5; Leviticus 19: 18). They were common and well known by every Jew. The first is the “Shema” which is part of our First Reading today (Deuteronomy 6: 2-6). The word Shema translates “listen” or “hear” in Hebrew. It is so called because of the first word that opens the commandment. The Shema was recited by every Jew at least twice a day. More than being recited, the text was put in small containers, called Mezuzah, and mounted on every door post; the text was also placed in small boxes, known as Tefellin, and worn on the arm or on the forehead. It was to be a constant reminder of not just their faith in The One God, but of His Presence in their midst. The Shema was the lived prayer of the Jewish people. It was a profound profession of the faith of the Jews in the One and Only God, who created the heaven and the earth and all they contain. It was the official declaration of their monotheism.
Jesus’ restatement of the Shema here added something new. The original Shema commands the love of God with all of one’s heart, soul and strength; Jesus adds “mind” to the human parts that need to be engaged in this relationship. So whereas the original text demands the participation of the heart, the seat of human emotions and will; the soul as the whole living being; and strength to state the fact that the love of God demands our energy, commitment and engagement. The introduction of “mind” by Jesus goes far deeper than these, for Jesus the love of God has to be a constant object of thought; it is not a flashing intermittent occurrence but a conscious outcome of a sound meditation and reflection. This is a call to set God at the centre of our lives and a challenge to always carry the love of God wherever we go. We have to love God because God loved us first(1 John 4: 19).
Notice that no one had ever combined these two commandments the way Jesus did even though they had all been there separately. By combining these two commandments, Jesus distils the Decalogue to its very basics – the first Three relate with our love of/for God, and the fourth to the tenth have to do with our relationship with one another, our neighbours. The love of neighbour is clearly inseparable from the love of God because it is the only true manifestation of the love of God. On the one hand, the love of God is concretised by the love of one’s neighbours, and on the other, the love of God is revealed through the love of one’s neighbours. They are intrinsically related. St. John calls those who claim to love God without loving their neighbours liars: “If anyone says: ‘I love God,’ while he hates his brother, he is a liar. How can he love God whom he does not see, if he does not love his brother whom he can see?” (1 John 4: 20). What kind of love are we talking about here? Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical Deus Caritas Est speaks of “the vast semantic range of the word love.” No doubt, the word love covers a wide range of emotions and feelings but what we are concerned with here or what Jesus emphasised here is the kind of love that St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. The love that is selfless and self-sacrificing; that goes out to seek the good of the other; that is unconditional with no strings attached. It is loving the unlovable; loving people we would have loved to hate; loving our enemies. This love is unconquerable and invincible, the love that is fire that no water can quench. This is the real love of neighbour that concretises the love we have for God. Do you have it for anyone at all?