The Pharisees and the teachers of the law of Jesus’ day are notorious for their hypocrisy and misplaced religious zeal. But we shouldn’t paint them all with the same brush. In chapter twelve of Mark’s gospel we meet one of the teachers of the law who came to Jesus not to trap him in his words, but to seek out his wisdom.
The unnamed teacher had overheard Jesus debating with the Sadducees and noted how Jesus calmly refuted their denial of the resurrection, and so he took the opportunity to ask Jesus a question of his own. He wanted to know what the most important commandment was.
Jesus responded with his well-known answer:
“The most important one is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”Mark 12:29-31
The teacher of the law then summarized what Jesus had just said in his own words and added a comment which showed that he had understood the real meaning of Jesus’ answer:
“To love God 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.”Mark 12:33
This commentary from the teacher is a lesson God had taught his people many times over in the Old Testament. For example, Moses implored the tribes of Israel to not only be circumcised outwardly, but to circumcise their hearts as well – to cut off sin from their life and be devoted to God. Jeremiah used the same language as he prophesied many years later to a stubborn and wayward Israel. We also see the same theme in Psalm 51 where David writes of the futility of sacrifices and burnt offerings if they are not accompanied by true repentance and transformed living. For those with ears to hear, the teaching was clear.
Jesus was not introducing a new teaching, but rather continuing in the tradition of the prophets who came before him. We see how much of his ministry was spent exposing the emptiness of a religious system focused on outward practices, but void of inner substance – an age-old problem in Israel. The Pharisees and others boiled down their teachings into a list of do’s and don’ts: circumcise your infants; bring your burnt offerings; keep all the commandments; don’t be like the heathens. That was the only way to salvation. That was the road to God’s blessing.
Jesus came to interrupt the error of the Pharisees and redirect the people to the true teachings of God’s word. Jesus’ response to the teacher’s commentary reveals just how important this teaching is. “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus said. The teacher was on the right track. And his brief interaction with Jesus helps us stay on the right track as well.
We can so easily get caught up in the traditions and practices of the church that we forget about the heart of the Christian religion – to love God and to love the people he has made. Well-tested practices and traditions are important, even necessary, but they are not of utmost importance, and separated from a genuine love of God and neighbour they are useless. We must therefore be diligent in constantly examining whether what we do is being driven by a love for God or by love for something else.
Is the most important commandment front and center to what we do, or has it taken a back seat?