If you are reading this today my guess is that you know the answer to the question, “what is 2+3?” You probably didn’t even have to think about it. In fact, from what I understand about how our crazy subconscious mind works, you saw the formula and didn’t even register the 2 or the 3 but just thought 5. I am also guessing if you have gone anywhere near a church in the last 20 or so years and I say, “quote John 3:16,” in no time at all the words”For God so loved the world” will fly out of your mouth.
Some questions are too easy to answer.
So it is that Jesus’ time of testing in front the Chief Priests, the Pharisees and Sadducees comes to a close with the dumbest question of all questions, at least to a 1st century Jew. “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?”
They grilled him about his authority. They tried to capture him on taxes. Then they brought a ridiculously complex hypothetical about the resurrection. Now all that is left is something akin to 5 year old theology. They may as well have asked him to sing the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
The question about the greatest commandment was not an opinion question. It was not the stuff of political debates or news columns. It had a right answer and a wrong answer and everybody around Jesus had learned the right answer at the beginning of their lives. The greatest commandment was that there was one and only one God and we are to love that God with everything we have. This had been clearly established for thousands of years.
On that note, I have no idea what the teacher of the law hoped to prove by asking the question. He may have seen the failure of his friends and grasped at desperation. He may have been something akin to a sophomore theology student who had just heard a convincing but vain argument that “loving God” wasn’t the most important and he seriously wanted Jesus to weigh in. We have no idea but somehow Jesus is reduced to kindergarten status in the teacher of the law’s eyes and a slow ball is lobbed right across the plate.
Jesus hits the home run.
I imagine Jesus rolled his eyes before blandly reciting Deuteronomy 6:4 and 5 to appease the onlookers. But then, after quoting everybody’s favorite Bible verse, Jesus didn’t stop talking. He answered another question that hadn’t been asked, “And the second is like it. Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.”
There is convincing evidence that the second greatest commandment had all ready been agreed upon as well by the theologians of Jesus’ day. What he said did not surprise them in the least. There was little to no debate on the importance of loving your neighbor, even though that command is buried in more obscure parts of the Old Testament.
And yet, by including the second commandment, and by saying, “it is like it” Jesus is doing something far more subversive. That phrase which we translate “is like it” suggests much more equality in Greek than it might in English. Jesus is saying, “The second commandment is exactly like the first.” There is no distinguishing mark between them. The second is the first. The first is the second. We love God by loving our neighbor.
Today is Maundy Thursday. Contrary to popular belief it is not “Monday Thursday” which I assume refers to the first day back at work after a 5 day weekend that began last Saturday. It is “Maundy” which is Latin for “Mandate.” We so named this Thursday because at the Last Supper before he was betrayed Jesus told his disciples, “This is my new mandate, that you love one another.” (John 13:38).
That same night Jesus goes on to say, “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” The commands are to love. We love God by loving our neighbor. There is no separation between love of God and love of neighbor. The first greatest commandment is the second.
In Mark 12, I am not sure if the teacher of the law picked up on this nuance but he still seemed pleased. He recited a common line from the Old Testament prophets that, “These are more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices.”
And Jesus replied, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Tonight as we gather around the table of the Lord and hear again the new mandate to love one another, may we also not be far from the kingdom of God.
Heavenly father, in love draw us nearer to your presence. And also with love breathe us out to continue to love one another.