This week yet another question is asked of Jesus, this time by a Scribe impressed with his previous answer on the resurrection. Discussions of which of the 613 commands of the Torah were greater or lesser was part and parcel of continual interpretation and application of the Law within Palestinian Judaism.
Jesus’ answer goes to the very principle of the Law itself. He quotes the Shema (Deut 6:4), prayed every day by an observant Jew. It speaks of ‘our God’ who has graciously chosen and created a people for himself. That people (Israel) are called to a wholehearted loving response to the saving character of their one true God.
This love is to be complete, unrestrained, total – the whole person is taken up with love for God.
Such love can’t be legally forced, otherwise it would not be love. It is a matter of loving with all the heart. It is seeking after God first.
Such love is deep, it is a matter of loving with all the soul.
Such love is robust for all the complexities of life, it is a matter of loving with all of the mind.
Such love is not weak, it is a matter of loving with all of one’s strength, whatever comes.
One good outcome of the New Perspective on Paul has been to reclaim Judaism from popular stereotypes that OT faith was all about ‘Law’ and NT faith is all about ‘Grace’. That such a view is a stereotype is obvious. Jesus is not stating something new, he is reiterating what every Jew knew and said every day. The prophetic tradition had said similar things – Malachi especially comes to mind. Technical obedience to the Law was worse than useless if it was not flowing out of an authentic wholehearted love for God and lifestyle to match.
But just as, for new covenant people of God, the gospel can get ‘lost’ / assumed / or ‘fossilised’ in tradition, so too could the Shema for old covenant people of God. That’s what seems to have happened to much of the popular Judaism of Jesus’ day. It had lost touch with its original calling. It had forgotten its first and greatest calling – to love God.
And once love of God is lost, love of man soon follows. Jesus’ attacks on the Jewish leadership of his day was on their failure to be ‘Jewish enough’ – they had misapplied and misinterpreted the Torah to become a burden to break people’s backs.
And so he calls them back to their true calling and identity – complete and utter love of God accompanied by radical and generous love of neighbour – even, as Jesus makes clear elsewhere, when that neighbour is your enemy.
The scribe not only agrees with Jesus, he sees that the external functions of the law (such as the sacrificial system) was not worth a hoot if love for God was not at its core. Unlike in previous conversations, he ‘gets it’ and Jesus sees a man ready to enter the kingdom of God.
Lord God, we confess that often we lose sight of our true calling and identity to love you with our hearts, souls, minds and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Our hearts grow cold, our souls wither, our minds are taken up apparently more urgent and tangible things, and our passion and strength given over to transient dreams. Rather than showing grace and compassion to others, we find it easier to judge those different from ourselves and conveniently ignore those in need. Forgive us, Father. Help us, through your Spirit, to grasp afresh the height and depth and breadth of your love poured out for us in your Son and to respond with wholehearted joyful service of you, our gracious God, and with lives of generosity and compassion to those in need around us. Amen.
The Greatest Commandment
28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 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: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.