Word of god and Salesian life by Fr Juan Jose’ Bartolome’ SDB
31st Sunday Year B Lectio divina on Mk 12,28b-34
The question put to Jesus by the scribe might seem strange nowadays. How could a learned man who observed the law not know which was the first commandment of the law? Jesus, however, found nothing surprising in the question and certainly did not take offence at it. The context then was very different from ours today. At the time of Jesus, people were really concerned about doing the will of God in all situations, so much so that they had hundreds of different precepts. The whole of life, public and private, was ordered by a detailed set of norms. Since it was taken for granted that every one of these norms was an expression of God’s will, it seemed that they were all of equal importance. It was logical then that the more devout people should ask which was the first commandment among all those contained in the law. This was where they should start to obey God, and so it was a matter of great importance.
28 One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a further question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ 29 Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, 30 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. 31 The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ 32 The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true, that he is one and there is no other. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ 34 Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.
Read: understand what the text is saying, paying attention to how it says it
Even though Jesus had entered Jerusalem in triumph (Mk 11,1-11), his stay in the holy city was not peaceful. After he cleared the temple, the various groups of leaders never stopped questioning his authority (Mk 11,28), his political involvement (Mk 12,14) and his belief in the resurrection of the dead (Mk 12,19-23). Last of all came this well-meaning scribe who approached Jesus with a question on the first or most important of the commandments. Unlike the others who were trying to create controversy, this master of the law entered into a sincere dialogue with Jesus, based on a genuine religious concern (quite different from Mt 22,34-40 and Lk 10,25-28). Even for an expert it was not easy to disentangle the 613 precepts of the law (248 positive precepts and 365 negative ones). Having some order of priority would be a help when it came to putting these precepts into practice. Jesus replied quoting not one commandment, as requested, but two. The first one repeats the central text of the Old Testament (Deut 6,4-5). In origin, it was part of a prayer recited three times a day. There is only one God and this demands of the believer total love. No one else is to be adored but God alone. God is deserving of a love that is exclusive and total. The second is taken from Lev 19.18: “you must love your neighbour as yourself.” At the time of Jesus the neighbour was one who belonged to the same family or to the Jewish people. Jesus will teach later that we are to consider as a neighbour also the stranger, the marginalized, the one who is different (Lk 10,29-37). What he stresses here is that the natural deep appreciation and concern one has for oneself should be extended also to others. These precepts form one single commandment – neither of them takes precedence or can claim to be superior to the other.
When the scribe acknowledges Jesus’ reply, Jesus praises him without reservation (Mk 12,34): “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Knowing that you are to love God above all else, and your neighbour as yourself, makes you a citizen of the Kingdom.
2. Meditate: apply what the text says to life
The evangelist has placed this episode in the context of Jesus’ ongoing controversy with the Jewish leaders. The scribe shows his good will both by the question he asks and by his approval of Jesus’ reply. The question about the principal commandment was very understandable in a religious system that counted precepts by the hundred. Jesus did not simplify the law by reducing its content or obligation. He made it more radical by summing up the meaning of the law in total love for God, and love of neighbour as oneself. He did not reduce its demands but rendered them more profound by making them all expressions of this twofold love. In both cases, the commandment creates a permanent duty. Whoever accepts it must continue to observe it always. The decisive element, however, is that there is no distinction between the two precepts, and it is not possible to live only one of them. The best form of worship of God is brotherly love. Understanding this draws us close to the Kingdom. Putting it into practice makes us citizens of the Kingdom.
The reply given by Jesus contained nothing extraordinary. He repeated the principal commandment of the Law; “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.” And then he added immediately, “You must love your neighbour as yourself.” A response like this was sure to gain the admiration of the scribe, showing him how he could obey God without having to observe innumerable petty norms. A liberating reply of this kind is always pleasing. Jesus in turn acknowledges that the scribe is not far from the Kingdom of God. Wanting to obey God in what is most important to him, draws us close to him.
What about us? Are we close to the Kingdom of God? Or are we like those who witnessed the conversation, and continue to question Jesus because we are afraid of the answer? Maybe Jesus’ answer frightens us. They asked Jesus which was the first commandment, but Jesus answered by mentioning two. He speaks of loving God alone, and loving your neighbour as yourself. as if they were one and the same. The Law of God, then, is summed up as the love due to God, which is easily understood by all believers, and the love of neighbour which is equal to the love we have for ourselves, but this seems beyond us. We are afraid to accept that the will of God demands of us, more than anything else, the love of God and of our brothers and sisters. This means that the obedience we owe to God is fulfilled, not so much by doing what he commands and avoiding what he forbids, but by loving whatever good we do. It is not just a question, then, of doing no wrong, and not failing to do good, but of loving what we do and doing it out of love. Anyone who wants to be close to God and his Kingdom must love more than obey, or better, must obey because he loves.
When we realize that the commandments of God, whatever they may be and whatever they may ask of us, are really about our duty to love God, it will be easier for us to observe them and we will feel closer to the Kingdom of God. The only reason why it costs us so much to do God’s will is that we do not love him enough. Because we do not love God enough, we think that what he asks of us it too much, that his laws take over the whole of our lives. If we realize that the only thing that God demands and expects of us is love for him, shown in love of neighbour, we will find it easier to keep all the commandments. What God asks of us is proof of how much he loves us. Like a good Father, it because he loves us that he asks what he asks of us.
However, by summing up the whole law in the precept of love of God, Jesus has not made obedience easy for us. His formulation of the law requires us to love God alone with all our strength. We know very well that it is easier for us to obey concrete demands that apply to particular situations and do not oblige every moment of our lives. We like to feel we have fulfilled our obligations when we have done all that was commanded, and we feel good about having obeyed. But can we ever feel that we have fulfilled completely a law that obliges us to love God with our whole hearts, all that we are and all that we desire, all that we think and all that we do? Who could ever say that he has always loved God alone with his whole being? We know that this is the first commandment, and we have to admit that we have not yet fully observed it. The commandment of love is the only one that we can never fully satisfy and so we will never be free of it. The law of love obliges always. The other commandments of God may be difficult but they apply only on certain occasions, whereas the love we owe to God keeps us permanently indebted to him.
This helps us to understand why this is the first commandment. By giving us his love, God has placed us under an obligation of love, impossible ever to fulfil to the full, but one that obliges always. No matter how much we love God, we will always be indebted to him. We are never free of the duty to love God. We can never repay fully our debt and we feel obliged always to prove our love. Our efforts to obey his commandments are the best way we can show the love we owe as children of our Father.
The love of God alone and the love of neighbour are complementary. Jesus acknowledges that the main thing is to love God, but he goes on to say that there is another important commandment, very similar to the first, which is to love our neighbour. God wants us to love him alone, and does not allow his children to have any other love in their hearts. It is precisely for this reason that he asks us to love others with the same love we have for ourselves. The only love, then, that God permits his faithful people, is the love of neighbour. God does not want to see in our lives, in our minds and in our hearts, people or things that take his place. But the God who wants our love exclusively for himself, is not jealous if we love our neighbour. Only someone who loves God with all his heart and all his strength, will be able to put his neighbour always at the centre of his concerns. We must love God with all our strength in order to be able to love our neighbour as ourselves. Indeed, as our daily experience shows, the less we love God the more we hate the people around us. Love of neighbour is the measure of our love for God.
Jesus told the wise man that he was not far from the Kingdom, because he had commented positively on what Jesus had said. However, being close to the Kingdom does not yet mean that we belong. It will be of no benefit to us simply knowing the will of God and his commandments, if we do not put them into practice. And that means loving our neighbour as ourselves, and loving God always above everything else. These commandments are indeed impossible. We can prepare ourselves to put them into practice by asking God to love us as he asks us to love him. When we feel that we are loved by God with all his heart, it will be easier for us to love God and neighbour.