12:28 – “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” This is the question posed to Jesus. And it’s an interesting question. Many Christians, if this question was posed to them, would probably be inclined to reply, “They’re all important!” A question like this might imply that the questioner is wanting to know what areas of his religious practice were open to a little fudging, a little less exactitude of circumspection. Many of us would want to emphasize that since all the commands of Scripture come from God (and particularly here we would be thinking of the commands of the New Testament, since these are specifically directed toward us as Christians), all are therefore reflections of his divine will and ought all to be followed in their entirety. In that sense, there aren’t any commands that are more or less important than any others. But Jesus doesn’t address the question like that. Rather, he accepts the questioner’s premise, that there is a “most important” command. This is useful for Christians to remember. Sometimes, in our zeal to uphold the truth and power of our faith, we so emphasize the importance of keeping all the rules of Christian conduct that we slip into legalism. It’s worth remembering that we must leave room for grace, and that all the rules about Christian conduct are merely offshoots of our one great command, to love God and love others. If we are truly keeping that great command, keeping the other rules will almost always grow naturally from that foundation. This is true not only of conduct, but of doctrine too—remember that the great core of the faith, the truths that we share with all Christian churches, are more important and more foundational than the minutiae of varying interpretations regarding sacraments, polity, or eschatology. When it comes to a tree, the roots and the trunk are more important than the branches. Make sure you have a healthy tree before you start spending all your time trimming the leaves into the exact shapes you want them.
12:29 – Jesus’ recitation of the greatest commandment here in Mark doesn’t simply leave it at, “Love the Lord your God.” Rather, he begins where all good Jewish theology does: with the Shema—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” In that one little phrase is hidden a great mystery of the Godhead. When Christians declare the truth of Deuteronomy 6:4, we mean that God is the only God, the God who created all things and fills all things and holds them all together. He is united in his persons and his attributes, in so high a unity that his attributes each become expressions of the totality of his being, rather than separate aspects. Because God is one, he is the “all in all,” always existing both throughout and beyond our material universe. Not only is he the foundation of all reality, he is also its telos, its end, the reason and goal for which it was made. When Jesus reminds us that the Lord is one, he is laying the theological foundation for the greatest commandment. We must love God because he is the one and only reality, the one and only thing that truly exists in and of itself (on which all other existence is contingent), the one goal to which all creation must direct itself. With such a truth in mind, our response to this God cannot be anything other than the most all-consuming, all-encompassing act of which we are capable: to love him with every aspect of our being, every movement of our heart, every intention of our will.
12:30 – “With all your heart.” The heart is the seat of the emotional life (as in English, largely so in Greek), and so this speaks to loving God with all the genuine fervor of true affection, not as a rote duty (if such a thing could even be called love), but as an outflowing of our deepest longings. “With all your soul.” The soul is that incorporeal aspect of human existence, usually (but not always) undistinguished from “spirit.” Since this verse speaks about loving God with the totality of our being, but does not include a mention of “spirit,” we ought to conclude that here “soul” is referring to the entirety of the incorporeal, spiritual aspect of humanity. Thus we must love God not just with the whole of our earthly life, with all its physicality, emotions, and attributes; we must also love God with our souls, that spiritual part of ourselves that is designed to respond to God and to be mystically united to him in the person of Christ. “With all your mind.” Here Jesus adds a word not found in the Hebrew version of the Shema. One may suppose it is added because Jesus is speaking in a Hellenophile world, where Greek intellectual life has so emphasized the mind, over against the body, soul, and emotions, that Jesus felt it worthy of special note. We are to love God with all our intellectual capacities. The call to follow Christ is not a call to give up the life of the mind, but rather to engage it in the highest pursuit of all, and by the light of eternal Truth to understand all things more clearly. “With all your strength.” The Hebrew word for “strength” is literally the word “muchness” or “veryness,” and so this part of the verse doesn’t relate merely to human physicality (though that is included); it speaks to loving God with all the overflowing totality of our being—“love the Lord your God with all your everything.”
12:31 – “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Here Jesus brings together two independent commands of the Torah, one from Deuteronomy and one from Leviticus, connects them, and gives them prominence that their original sources never did. These are the greatest commandments, and Jesus speaks out both of them together, when he could have conceivably given just one commandment as his answer to the teacher of the Law. Why does he give two? Because we must always remember that loving God and loving our neighbor are connected. The second is a necessary outflowing of the first. This is important to know, because we are too often willing to proclaim our love for God while not giving a second thought to our neighbors. But, in light of this verse, such behavior cannot be considered a genuine love for God. If we truly loved God, we would be coming to know him and to share his affections for the world. The truth is, God loves your neighbor—loves him enough to die for him. How then can we claim to love God, and not love our neighbor? The second great commandment is, in effect, a litmus test for our keeping of the first. But how can we love someone for whom we might not actually feel any affection? The problem here is that we often think of love in purely emotional terms. But this is an unbiblical way of thinking. When Scripture speaks of love, it is not saying that you have to muster up warm and fuzzy feelings for your neighbors. It’s saying that you must act in love towards them, regardless of your emotional state. That’s real love. Feelings come and go, but love is the action of sharing and participating in God’s outreaching acts of love for others. This, perhaps, is part of the reason why Jesus says you are to love your neighbor "as yourself"--when I think of how I love myself, the plain fact of the matter is that I don't always feel warm and fuzzy; more often I find myself frustrated with myself, and yet despite that lack of glowing feelings, I don't give up on myself--rather, I continue to try to do those things that I think will tend toward my good. That strikes me as the same kind of love we must give to our neighbors. And who is my neighbor? At this point, the other Gospels answer that question by relating the story of the Good Samaritan. And the main point derived from that story is simply this: everyone is your neighbor, and especially the person you can’t stand. So that is the one you must love.
12:32-34 – Here we find one of the few instances in the Gospels where one of Jesus’ interlocutors actually gets something right. The teacher notes that the keeping of those two commands is more important than the whole of the Jewish Temple’s system of worship, with all its offerings and sacrifices. This was an astonishing claim to make, especially when standing in Jerusalem itself (as they were), in the shadow of the Temple. But the teacher is right—all other acts of devotion, while they have their place, are an outflow of these foundational principles, of the call to love, and to enter into and become participants in the love of God. All other acts of devotion—whether sacrifices in the Old Testament, or prayers, praises, and acts of charity in the New—all such acts are founded on, and grow out of, the great commandments. Without love, all such acts would become meaningless. Only when done with love do they become powerful, beautiful, and good. For this answer, Jesus commends the teacher. Those Christians who tend towards being legalists, sticklers, or contrarians by nature should here take note: where Jesus finds something to affirm, he affirms it. His teachings are far more than just a criticism, a negation of all that is wrong with the world. Rather, he commends the good he hears from this man, and uses it as an encouragement to drive him ever nearer the Kingdom of God.