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?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 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”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 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. (NRSV)
Jesus must have been tiring of the insincerity – so many word traps in Jerusalem. One could understand a desire to ditch the teaching all together. Perhaps he could meet the insincerity with something less than his own standards. All we know is that he did not stoop so low. He consistently answered ‘well’.
Our passage begins, surprisingly, with a scribe who heard and saw Jesus’ integrity. Any double standards in his order have not blinded him. He notices Jesus’ considered and persuasive answers and is inspired to put forward his own question: ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’
With over six hundred commandments in the Torah this too could be understood as the work of a hunter.A priority listing of the carefully collected commandments implies a ranking system – an interpretive agenda. Jesus’ answer will challenge other more established paradigms. Our question is not a trap but it remains a risky place to tread.
But Jesus does not seem hampered by any debilitating caution. He answers bravely and boldlyreaching into Israel’s storehouse of wisdom and, although only one is requested, decisively pulling out two commandments. And then he unapologetically pronounces them as not just the ‘first’ but the ‘greatest’.
And they are both about love.
Yes, Jesus answers with the order of the heart: first God and then others.Please remember, this is not an ordering of only two possibilities. There are many other parts of creation that can capture the hearts of people. It is a prioritising of the two noblest of a myriad of potential loves the human heart latches onto. All these good gifts and practices come from God but only find their appropriate place underneath these two.
And Jesus is not the only one who sees so clearly. Our open-hearted scribe also demonstrates 20/20 vision. This God-and-other aligned love is more important than lists of offerings and sacrifices. As the apostle Paul said, without love the sum total of such gifts is ‘nothing’ (1 Corinthians 13:3).
Maybe it is only as we love this way that we discover God’s kingdom is closer than we ever imagined.