No Commandment Greater Than These
Mark 12: 28 — 34
The close of the Christian year, ending as it does around the last week in November, brings us to the last week of our Lord's ministry. Our text for meditation reports an incident which occurred two days before the Last Supper and the Passover. There are crowds of visitors in Jerusalem and many educated rabbis among them. There is a high level of traditional debate. For those who are open-minded and value listening to the opinion of others, it can be like a peak-experience of personal revelation. Certainly it was a high point of Judaic culture each year.
Shortly before this incident, Jesus had been debating with the Sadducees about an absurd question they posed concerning marriage and resurrection. The Sadducees, we recall, were upper class intellectuals some of whom controlled the Temple and its various operations. In his reply to their unworthy question, Jesus out-foxed them with a brilliant answer. Listening to all this was a Pharisee Scribe who had developed a genuine interest in what our Lord had to say about things. An opportunity presents itself for him to engage in dialogue, the results of which have been passed down to us as one of the treasures of our Faith.
Some Notes On the Text
The on-looking rabbi now moves to "centre stage". Impressed that Jesus had very adeptly put the Sadducees in their place, he decides to challenge our Lord with one of the more difficult questions the rabbis debated among themselves. It was, of course, only one of many topics rabbis challenged one another to address and clarify. Our Lord was known not to be an ordained rabbi. However, the scribe honours Jesus not only with the title of "rabbi" (see verse 32) but also in seeking his opinion of one of the most all-embracing questions. As is always the case, when Jesus is confronted with honest, enthusiastic enquiry to gain a deeper understanding of divine things, he gives far more than is anticipated.
As we read, the scribe asks Jesus "Of all the commandments (meaning, the 613 obligations derived from Sacred Scriptures), which is the most important?" This is rather misleading in English. The scribe actually asked Jesus, as we might express it, "What is the 'parent commandment', the foundation stone of the Torah — the Law of God — the Will of God?"
Christian writers sometimes make much of the 613 commandments and what was often presented as the excessive burden of the Law. Nowhere is it recorded that Jesus ever denigrated the Torah, the Law of Moses, or the importance of obedience. What he is shown, in the New Testament, to despise is the practice, common among some (and only some) of the Pharisees of his time, of reducing the Law of God to 613 practices which, if kept, will enable one to meet God's commands without the love which God commanded they should demonstrate. Jesus exposes this whenever he can, for the sakes of the erring rabbis as well as the people they are misleading. If we do not understand this, we miss much of the power and force of the core teaching of Jesus.
Verses 29 — 31
Our Lord is thrilled to be asked the question and, accordingly, gives a very clear and direct answer, which must be taken as a single statement.
Jesus begins with the famous "Shema" (or Sh'ma) taken from Deuteronomy 6: 4.
The Lord is one in his unity, and the only one who is Lord. This is the central prayer of Judaism and as such is recited morning and evening by the devout, practising Jew. As we know, Jesus followed the rules of Jewish piety and substituted the actual name of God (Jehovah or Yahweh) with the title "Lord".
Our Lord followed this with Deuteronomy 6: 5, and added Leviticus 19: 18. In essence Jesus is saying:
Verse 32 and 33
The scribe is ecstatic and congratulates Jesus on a superb answer. In admiration he repeats our Lord's answer to honour Jesus even further, and highlights the fact that it places the obligation of undivided love of God and neighbour before the prescribed sacrifices of the Law.
What is so very special in this reply is that Jesus has already demonstrated this in his life. In two days time he will formally declare it to be a prerequisite for becoming his disciple. As we said, it will become the new Sh'ma.
It is now Jesus who is ecstatic! In true rabbinic style, each is leading the other on. The use of the word "wisely" (Greek: nounechos) refers to the scribes' genuine habit of "listening" in obedience to the Sh'ma: "Hear O Israel". Here is a man who listens to God and lives God's Law with all his power. To him Jesus responds with the ultimate honour, declaring him "not far from the kingdom of God". Certain forms of Christian scholarship like to point out that as a Jew this man has got about as close as he can hope to get to the kingdom! In this instance, they miss the point, failing as they do to take the context into account. Jesus is on the brink of his great personal Passover (2 days away).
He is only weeks from formally inaugurating his Church (at least, as we have it in Luke). His message to the rabbi in front of him is really a message to all who would "listen".
We close with a quote from St John Chrysostom (A.D. 347 — 407), Bishop of Constantinople. (Do read the interesting "Biographical Note" on this exceptional preacher.)
Biographical Note On St John Chrysostom
CHRYSOSTOM, St. JOHN (c. 347 — 407), Bishop. of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church. He was educated for the law under the great pagan orator Libanius at Antioch, where he studied theology under Diodore of Tarsus, the leader of the Antiochene School. He early felt a call to the monastic life. As the care of his widowed mother Anthusa prevented the immediate fulfilment of this desire, he lived for some time under rule at home, and later became a hermit (c. 373 — c. 381), following the Pachomian Rule with austerities which undermined his health. He was made deacon in 381, and served at Antioch wider the bishop Flavian, who ordained him priest in 386, and appointed him to devote special attention to the work of preaching (a task in which his ability gained him the name of Chrysostom, 'golden-mouthed'). During the years 386 — 98, when his great powers of oratory were directed esp. to the instruction and moral reformation of the nominally Christian city of Antioch, he delivered his series of 'Homilies' on Gen., Mt., In., Rom., Gal., Cor., Eph., Tim., and Tit., which establish his title as the greatest of Christian expositors. These works combine a great facility for seeing the spiritual meaning of the author with an equal ability for immediate practical application. He was opposed, however, to the allegorical exegesis of the Scriptures, and insisted that they must be interpreted literally. Against his wish, Chrysostom was made Patriarch Of Constantinople in 398, and immediately set about the work of reforming the city, where the corruption of court, clergy, and people alike had been encouraged by the complaisance and self-indulgence of his predecessor, St. Nectarius.
His combination of honesty, asceticism, and tactlessness, when joined with the hatred of Theophilus, the unworthy Patriarch of Alexandria, his disappointed rival, and of the Empress Eudoxia, who with some reason took all attempts at moral reform as a censure of herself, was sufficient to work his ruin. At the Synod of the Oak (403), carefully packed by Theophilus, Chrysostom was condemned on 29 charges, the most serious being those of Origenism (quite unjustified) and improper remarks about the Empress. Chrysostom, removed from his see, was shortly afterwards recalled by the court; but very soon his plain speaking brought the displeasure of the Empress on him again, and his enemies saw their opportunity, and secured his banishment on a charge of unlawfully reassuming the duties of a see from which he had been canonically deposed (404). Even the support of the people of Constantinople, of the Pope (Innocent 1), and of the entire Western Church, failed to save him. He was exiled at first to near Antioch, and when it became clear that in spite of his enfeebled health he would not die there soon enough, he was moved to Pontus, and finally deliberately killed by enforced travelling on foot in severe weather. His chief claim to remembrance, apart from his personal holiness, rests on his preaching, his exegesis, and his liturgical reforms. (See foil. art.) His early work, 'On the Priesthood', is a finely conceived description of the responsibilities of the Christian minister. Feast day in West, 13 Sept. (formerly 27 Jan.); in East, 13 Nov.
(From "Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church",
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