Listening to Jesus About God's Commandments

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 12:28-31

And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Mark 12:28-31 rsv

What will Jesus say is the greatest of the commandments? What will He teach as life’s highest priority? Apparently a number of people wondered about that during His ministry. On at least two occasions He was directly asked that question: “Which commandment, Jesus, is the first of all?”

It may be that they expected a surprising answer. Jesus had been known to say things like this: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old . . . (thus and so), but I say to you . . . .” Would Jesus have a new and startling view about God’s will? Would He set Himself up in opposition to the thinking of His contemporaries? Listen to His response. I’m reading from Mark 12:29:

Jesus answered, “The first is, `Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”


Before we look carefully at these commandments, let’s note some interesting things about the way in which Jesus responded. For one, He quoted directly from the Old Testament Scriptures. He reminded His hearers again that He had not come to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them, that He viewed the Old Testament revelation with the highest esteem and acknowledged its divine authority. Jesus sometimes corrected mistaken interpretations of the law and the prophets, but He always honored their essential message.

Also, He combined the commands to love God and neighbor in a way that other Jewish teachers had already done. He was not the first to affirm the connection between these, but rather underlined it in His own teaching. In other words, He never espoused the new just for novelty’s sake. Wherever there was truth in the outlook of His contemporaries, He never hesitated to acknowledge it.

Isn’t it striking that when asked to identify the first and greatest of the commands, Jesus answered by listing two? There was a clear priority in His mind: one was first, the other was second. But Jesus found it impossible to separate them.

Remember Leigh Hunt’s poem Abou Ben Adhem? The hero wakes in the night to see an angel writing in a book of gold. Abou asks what is being written. The angel replies, “the names of those who love the Lord.” “And is mine one?” he asks. “Nay, not so,” replied the angel. “I pray thee then,” asks Abou Ben Adhem, “write me as one who loves his fellow men.” When finally the book of gold is opened, the poet tells us, “Lo, Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.”

Hunt is trying to say, of course, that love for our fellow men is the truest kind of love for God, that the two are inseparable. But the implication of the poem seems also to be that loving our fellow human beings is the only thing that really matters. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the two commands as closely related but gave primacy and emphasis to the first.


Let’s look now at what Jesus called the first and great command. He begins His response to the questioner by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4, a portion of scripture called the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” The Lord is the one true and living God. The psalmist sings, “All the gods of the nations are idols but the Lord made the heavens” (Ps. 96:5). He is the almighty creator, the self-revealing One, in contrast to all the gods of merely human making.

Further He is described here as “our God,” as “your God.” This is the language of covenant. Right at the heart of Israel’s faith was the conviction that God had chosen them to be His special people and had drawn them into a covenant relationship with Himself. He had acted first on their behalf, loving them, calling them, making Himself known to them, delivering them from bondage and misery.

In other words, the love for God commanded here is a responsive kind of love. It answers to the prior, steadfast love of God. Remember how God prefaces all His commands to His people by saying this, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exod. 20:2). They are to obey Him then out of loyal gratitude. They are to love Him because He has first loved them.

Can you see what a difference this makes? There’s a sense in which love cannot be commanded, can it? No one can be compelled to love another person. Conformity can be legislated and enforced perhaps, but love never.

Think of a child growing up in a home where he or she is not loved. The parents may insist that this child show them love. They may require expressions of affection and punish all disobedience. But the child who has not known love will scarcely be able to give it. Children learn what love is by feeling its warmth and power in the family circle, seeing it expressed, hearing it spoken. Then from the heart they are free to give an answering love.

A God who did not love us first would not be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. A God who demanded love without giving it would be only a tyrant insisting on the impossible. The true God, the living God, who bids us love Him, has first demonstrated to His human children what love really is.

Notice the kind of love He asks for: “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The love we’re called to give is wholehearted (that is without dividedness); it’s with all the soul – full of enthusiasm and zest. It’s love with a desire to know God better and better, in closer and closer fellowship. And it’s a love into which we pour all our efforts and all our energies in seeking after Him. This, apparently, is the only fitting response to the total intense love with which God has first visited us.

It’s a love that excludes any rival, that holds back nothing, that keeps on growing and deepening all the time. Someone has said that by love we mean at least these attitudes and actions: “rejoicing in the presence of the beloved, gratitude, reverence, and loyalty.” God seeks all of that from His beloved children to the limit of their capacity, to the end of their lives.


The second command is also a call to love, to love our neighbors. The neighbor in Israel was usually considered to be a kinsman, one of the twelve tribes. With some that was further extended to include proselytes, gentiles who had thrown in their lot with Israel. But Jesus, when He taught about neighbor love, made a despised Samaritan the hero of His story, showing compassion for an Israelite. To Jesus, then, anyone in need is the neighbor we are called to love.

And we are to love that neighbor, He says, as ourselves. What does that mean? I’ve sometimes heard it said that this is an indirect command of God to love ourselves and thus a divine call to self esteem. It’s further taught that the reason we cannot love other people is that we do not adequately love ourselves, so that our first duty is to learn how to value and care for ourselves. Then, presumably, we will have the inclination and the resources to love our neighbors.

Now, few would want to question the importance of self-esteem. We are learning more and more in our generation about the value of a healthy self-acceptance. But it’s one thing to say that people need a clear sense of personal identity. It’s another to say that God has included that in the second great command.

Whatever our state of psychological health, most of us tend to be primarily concerned about ourselves, don’t we? We’re inclined to seek our own comfort, security and advantage. When faced with the claims of a neighbor’s need and our own, we are likely to pursue self-interest first. This commandment views us not as ideal selves, not as we will be when we have properly learned self-esteem, but as we are in our normal way of living. It calls us to show the same concern for another’s well-being as we customarily show for our own. As a modern psychiatrist has put it, “when the satisfaction, security, and development of another person become as significant to you as your satisfaction, security and development, then love exists.”

How are people led to this way of living? Will healthy self-esteem automatically produce this kind of neighbor love? It hardly seems so. You and I know many who think highly of themselves, who pursue vigorously their own interests, who are brimming over perhaps with self-confidence, who yet show little concern for the needs of their fellow human beings.

Will the command itself produce obedience? We know human nature and ourselves well enough to know that that doesn’t happen. Simply knowing what we ought to do doesn’t result in perfect performance on our part. In fact, we sometimes experience a kind of perverseness in ourselves, a tendency to rebel against norms and commands, even to move in the opposite direction.

Of what value for us then are these great commands, to us who are prone to forget God and take advantage of our neighbors? What keeps these commands from being a counsel of despair is the One who freshly voiced them, Jesus of Nazareth. He embodied in His life the fulfillment of them. Jesus’ love for God His Father was the most evident, controlling, remarkable feature of His life. With a passionate intensity, He sought His whole life long to obey the Father’s will, to accomplish His work, to glorify His name. Wholehearted love for God was the open secret of Jesus’ life.

Out of this loving relationship with the Father came His amazing compassion toward people. He loved them more than He loved His own life. He spent Himself on their behalf, gave Himself up to die for their sins. He took all their woes upon Himself that He might make them truly blessed. In Christ we have the perfect pattern of what it means to love God and love the neighbor.


But if that were the whole story, we would still be a people without hope. We would have before us only a shining ideal, impossible of accomplishment, only a standard that reveals our waywardness and moral bankruptcy. Jesus does more than show us the way. He is the Way. In His self-giving for our sakes, He reveals the Father’s love and so bears our condemnation that we may find in Him total forgiveness for all our sins, all our failures to love.

Best of all, on the first Easter morning, God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is alive, exalted, reigning on the throne of the universe. And, as the risen Lord, He has sent His own Holy Spirit to dwell in the lives of His people.

This is the promise, friends, of the new covenant. God had declared through His prophets that a day would come when all God’s people would know Him, experience His gracious forgiveness, and have the law of God written upon their inmost hearts. When that day came, the great commands to love God and love our neighbors would be not simply an external code but an inward power, not just a demand from without but an inner disposition. That’s what happens in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When we realize in Jesus Christ that we are wonderfully loved by God and forgiven, we are moved upon by His Spirit within us to love God with an answering love, and to love others more and more as the Lord has loved us.

So when you listen to Jesus’ teaching about what the greatest commandment is, you need not only to heed what He said but also to remember who He was, the life He lived, the death He died. And you need to trust Him as the living One who provides forgiveness for all your sins against love, and who gives a new dynamic to make you more and more a genuinely loving person. Will you listen to Him, look toward Him and trust in Him today? God bless you as you do.

Prayer: Father, when we face this towering standard, this enormous demand to love You with all our being and our neighbors as ourselves, may we realize our own sin and failing. But more than that, may we trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and for strength to live a genuinely loving life. For His sake. Amen.