28One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you 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.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
The debate continues – but this time the questioner is not sent in by Jesus’ adversaries, but rather someone who, hearing the debate, becomes interested in this rabbi who answers so well, and asks a question in a different spirit altogether. “Which commandment is the first of all?” This question was widely debated at the time. Jesus replies, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 – 5, which is known to the Jews as the “shema”, the opening word of the quotation, meaning “Hear”. The “shema” remains something like a profession of faith for Jews. The first commandment, the one to which Israel should pay attention, should hear, is “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.” This is quoted from Deuteronomy, but Jesus expands by adding “with all your mind”, which is not in the original quotation. Like the people of Israel, our first obligation is to love God, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Jesus adds that the second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And concludes by saying, “There is no commandment greater than these.” Interestingly, these two are not connected in Deuteronomy; Jesus has to go to a fairly obscure passage in Leviticus to pull out the “love your neighbor as yourself” law. And yet, this becomes the touchstone of the faith Jesus teaches – love God and love those whom God loves – love your neighbor, love your brothers and sisters in the faith, care for the poor, feed the hungry, and love even your enemy. The hallmark of Christian faith should be love.
This questioner says Jesus is right, that love of God and neighbor is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices. And Jesus tells him he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” He understands the importance of loving God, of putting God first in his life, and of loving his neighbor. Now he must live into what he understands. Love brings us into the Kingdom!