Situation 4: What is the Greatest Commandment?
(Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34)
Who questioned him: A Pharisee, described as a lawyer or scribe
What he asked: which commandment is the most important of all
Why this was significant: The passage in Mark points to a softening in this particular Pharisee’s heart. Under the guise of trying to trap Jesus, he posed a “testing” question.
Jesus’ response: He sincerely answered the question in full.
Bottom Line: “Testing” the validity of a religious claim, absent of an ulterior motive, was not condemned by Jesus. In fact, by giving a full, complete answer, he was approving it.
Jesus’ answer to the question was this, ““The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And 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.” (Mark 12:29-31)
Rather than being silenced like the previous encounters produced, the scribe responds, “32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 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, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33)
At first glance, the scribe appears to be quoting Jesus, but there are some differences. I find it interesting that while approving Jesus’ answer, he adds to Jesus’ words, “and there is no other [God] besides him.” Understandably, these men were concerned that Jesus was (1) preaching about a God different from the God they worshipped and (2) putting himself – in their eyes only a man – as an equal with God. That’s a very valid concern! Even those with hearts seeking God should “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).
I think another difference between the scribe’s quote of Jesus’ words is worth mentioning. Notice how Jesus said to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. In contrast, the scribe’s words were, “heart, understanding, and strength.” The differences here are worth noting.
From what I can ascertain in comparing the two Greek words for “mind” and “understanding,” the latter brings in more of a prior knowledge or intellect into it. The former is likened to deep thought and mental exercise.
Why is that significant? In my opinion, the scribe is admitting that he loves God with all of his current knowledge and intellect, whereas Jesus is challenging him to go deeper in his thinking, to not stop at his prior knowledge but instead to “exercise” that knowledge in the light of this new revelation. In other words, Jesus wants him to stop merely accepting everything he already knew and go deeper.
The scribe also omits the word “soul” in his statement. This word for soul implies “spirit,” as in, the deepest recesses of one’s being. This same word was used by Simeon when he told the young mother Mary that a sword would pierce her own soul. (Luke 2:35)
The word “heart” – the word that both Jesus and the scribe use – means thoughts or feelings. The scribe is admitting that he loves God with all of his thoughts and feelings, but by omitting the word “spirit,” he’s admitting that he hasn’t given his very deepest being to the love of God. The “heart” is a start, but it doesn’t need to end there to please God. God wants our entire being, the very depths of our souls.
In just these differences in words, you can see the inner struggle going on within the scribe’s heart. He’s wrestling with how to apply his vast intellect to these new teachings Jesus is offering. He’s admitting he hasn’t quite figured out how to love God with all of his very being.
Finally, there is one other statement that the scribe adds to Jesus’ words. He adds, “to love one’s neighbor as oneself is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33)
Not being a Jew, it’s hard for me to dig deep into the meaning of this statement, but here’s my first thought. This scribe recognizes that sacrifices mean nothing in comparison to loving one another. This is notable, considering that the Pharisees were the very ones who were painfully oppressing the people with their distortions of and additions to the Law. This scribe was beginning to see that what he has known all his life didn’t quite add up, but he wasn’t sure what to do about it.
Jesus recognized a seeking heart within this wise and educated man. His response was, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” What a statement! Jesus saw clearly a man who wasn’t looking to trap Jesus but instead a man who was seeking the truth. A man who was satisfied – even thrilled – with Jesus’ answer to his question but who wasn’t quite sure what to do next.
How can we apply this to our interactions? First, we need not be threatened when a person poses a difficult question. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? If God is good, why is there so much (insert injustice here) in the world? And the list can go on. In today’s information age, people are more natural questioners than we’re used to, but we need not bow up and go on the defensive, thinking these questions are always attacks. Sometimes they’re coming from the heart of someone who is truly seeking truth, but who is having a hard time reconciling things he/she doesn’t understand.
We need to respond in love, just as Jesus did.
Unlike Jesus, we don’t have all the answers. But we can look at Jesus’ example. He quoted Scripture. Where our reasoning and intellect is limited, Scripture is not. And if we can’t find the answer to a difficult question in Scripture, we can always say, “You know, I’m not quite sure but I would like to find out.” Then, we should go to a trusted person in our life who might give us Scripture references or a perspective we haven’t heard before.
Jesus didn’t shy away from the hard questions. By his response to this scribe, you can tell he welcomed them. We should welcome them, too, and trust that only through the drawing of the Holy Spirit will one come to know the truth anyway. It is not our job to convince someone of truth.
A questioning person doesn’t come to faith by the skill of our answers, by how much “evidence” we can present. He will come to faith by the leading of the Holy Spirit. But we can be used by pointing to Scriptures and responding in love.