(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
In the Gospel for this Sunday, Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem. He is with some of the chief priests and scribes. They are asking each other deep and important questions. This is the Jewish approach to scripture. Ask questions. Discuss. Argue about it. Ask more questions. In this way, people gain insight into the ways of God.
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
It sort of sounds like the man is testing whether Jesus knows the first of the Ten Commandments. But this would hardly be a question to gain insight into the ways of God. In fact, although we often speak of the Ten, there are many commandments in Holy Scripture. The Jewish people count 613 commandments. They are called mitzvot. They describe how to worship God and how to live with others—family, strangers, enemies. Sometimes following one commandment means ignoring another. How to know what to do? The scribe is indeed searching for insight into the ways of God.
And so Jesus begins,
‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.
Jesus is quoting from Holy Scripture. This comes from the fifth book of the Torah, called the Book of Deuteronomy. Jewish people recite these verses as prayer at least twice each day. It is called the "Shema Yisrael, " which is Hebrew for the first words, "Hear, O Israel." It makes sense that Jesus would lift out these verses of scripture as the most important commandment.
In effect, Jesus takes all the mitzvot about how to worship God and says they all mean this: God first. Love God with all.
Jesus wants to be very clear that "all" means all. We can tell this because he adds to the verse in Deuteronomy. Take a look. Jesus has added, "with all your mind,"—just in case we were thinking that our thoughts and ideas do not need to love God!
All our heart: our feelings.
All our mind: our thoughts.
All our strength: our actions.
All our soul: who we are—the person God calls by name.
God first. Love God with all.
But Jesus is not finished. Although this is first, although this is everything, Jesus knows we need more. How do we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Jesus puts these two commandments together. He binds them up. He makes them One.
How do we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength?
Love our neighbour.
Love our neighbour as ourself.
It is all One.
In effect, Jesus takes all the mitzvot about how to live with others—family, strangers, enemies—and says they all mean this: Love your neighbour as yourself.
613 commandments boiled down to two—two that are really One. What does the scribe think of Jesus' answer?
Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbour as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Look what the scribe does. He changes the verse, too. He takes "with all your soul" and "with all your mind" and combines them to say "with all the understanding." He understands. He agrees with Jesus.
Without love, all our offerings to God mean nothing.
Without love, all our little sacrifices, like the ones we do in Lent, mean nothing.
If we go to church every Sunday, but continue to say mean things about that kid at school—it means nothing.
Simple, perhaps, but not easy. How can we ever do this?
Alone, we cannot.
God, neighbour, self—seems like we are in this together.
Together we can live these commandments. There is hope for us all!
Jesus tells us,
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”