Mark 12:28-34

Remember now, we are in the midst of a series of test questions arranged by various members of the Sanhedrin to try to catch Jesus in some embarrassing or controversial reply. Now the scribes, or teachers of the law, take their turn, though in this case, it is an individual, not a group, and the conversation appears to be somewhat more cordial. Jesus even concludes it by commending the scribe who asked him the question.

Text Comment

The scribes and the rabbis thought a great deal about this question: which is the weightiest commandment or which one summarizes all the others? That may be one reason why it was asked. There would be those who disagreed with virtually any answer Jesus gave. Given that there were, by the rabbis’ count, some 613 commandments in the Torah it was inevitable that people should ask which of them were the most important, or whether there was a single principle from which all the separate commandments sprang. Twenty years before Jesus, Rabbi Hillel had answered a similar question with a negative version of the Golden Rule: “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah, everything else is interpretation.” A century after Jesus, Rabbi Akiba answered the question with Lev. 19:8: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Still later rabbis answered the question with “In all your ways acknowledge God and he will make your paths straight,” or even “The righteous will live by faith.” [Edwards, 370-371]
These two verses, cited from Deut. 6:4-5, are known as the shema and would have been recited morning and evening by pious Jews. In the Deuteronomy text there are three sources of this love: heart, soul, and strength. Jesus here adds a fourth, the mind, just as he added another commandment to the ten commandments in 10:19. This appears to be another evidence of the Lord’s authority, that he can make his own additions to Holy Scripture!
The scribe had asked for one commandment, but Jesus gave him two! It takes these two commandments, Jesus said, to realize the will of God. So far as we know, no one before Jesus ever put these two commandments together as the sum and substance of the Law. Anyway, I never read this without thinking of the perceptive comment of John Duncan, the eccentric Scottish missionary and professor: “How good God is! He bids everybody love me!” [Just a Talker, 76]
Very like the similar statement in Hosea 6:6, the scribe is not saying that sacrificial worship is not important but only that the love of God and man is more fundamental still.
In another demonstration of his authority, Jesus pronounces on the spiritual situation of this man, his nearness to the kingdom of God. He was a potential recruit and we can’t help wonder whether or not he finally believed and followed Jesus. [France, 482] He was, alas, one of only a few of his class at that time who were so open to the truth. In vv. 38-40 of this same chapter, we are given a description of the scribes as a class and it is not nearly so complementary. In any case, the series of questions had confirmed Jesus’ wisdom and made his interrogators look foolish, so this line of attack was given up.

Among all the religions and philosophies of mankind, the Christian faith is unique and stands utterly by itself at many crucial points. Her most fundamental principles are not only different but often the reverse of the world’s other religious thinking. And so here. Among the foremost of those uniquenesses, of that distinctiveness is that it is from the bottom up and from the inside out a religion of love. Love is its first principle, its soul, its center, and love is the engine that makes it go. Love for others: first God, then other people.

It begins, of course, in the very nature of God who is not only love itself, but consists of three persons who are bound together by the purest love. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united as one in an infinite, incomprehensible, mutual, and eternal love. As John says it in his first letter, “love is from God” and “God is love.” But love is something that in the nature of the case must have an object. There is an important clue to the existence of the triune God in that human beings should be made for the love of others; that they crave such love. Where does that come from except from a God who is himself and in his very existence a God of love, of love given and love received?

As C.S. Lewis famously expressed this point in Mere Christianity:

“All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’ But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, he was not love.”

Have you ever stopped to ask why virtually every song on the radio is about love; why the stories – whether written or on film – that captivate our attention are almost always stories about love; why human beings of virtually all ages daydream about love? Love – the love of man and woman, the love of parents for children, the love of friends for friends, the love a man for his country, or, for that matter, his football or baseball team, this love, this passion of attraction and delight and fulfillment, makes the world go round. Human beings are one vast need for love. The prim and proper matron understands this as surely as does the rock star prancing before the multitude on the stage. The ghetto dweller and the super-rich; the working man and the professional; the inhabitants of American, China, and India alike; the Christian and the Muslim; all need love, all want love desperately, all seek it anxiously and eagerly. All the real tragedies of life are tragedies of love: the man or woman who lives without love, who had it but lost it, the person who obtains everything else but love and finds life hollow because he or she remains yet unloved. In nothing are we so different from all the other creatures than in this wonderful and terrible capacity to love and the need both to love and to be loved.

Why is that? The love that is experienced in this world, the love that is sought by human beings who have not found it, the supreme joy in love that is the truest ecstasy of human life, all of this is the overflow of the love that first exists and has existed forever in the life of the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We are made for love because God our maker is love. Love is the richness of our life because it was first the richness of his. It is an entirely appropriate and accurate paraphrase of Augustine’s famous remark to say “God made us for love and our hearts are restless until they love in thee!” That is why love, in the words of Benjamin Warfield, “is the great enlarger [of persons]. It is love which stretches the intellect. He who is not filled with love is necessarily small, withered, shriveled in his outlook on life and things.”

No wonder then the Bible’s entire message of salvation is dominated by this same principle of love. The entire history of salvation is from its beginning the history of a great love. The Scripture teaches us that before the world was made God had set his love upon his people. “In love God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son.” Then it was that same love that moved the Father to send his Son into the world to suffer and die for our salvation. “For God so loved the world that he have his one and only son…” And then, it was that same love that caused him to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts, to awaken us to our need of Jesus, to cause us to believe in him that we might be saved. “…because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in our sins…” And it is that same love that has accompanied us every step of the way on our pilgrimage through this world. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And where will this saving love of God finally take us: to heaven, which is where love will fill every heart and dominate every relationship. In one of Jonathan Edwards’ great works, Charity and its Fruits, he concludes with a chapter entitled “Heaven, a World of Love” that some Edwards’ scholars regard as some of the great man’s most elevated and beautiful writing. In the same way Dante finishes his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy and its final part, Paradise, with a vision of heaven as the place where the soul is consumed and ravished by love.

My power now faltered that phantasy sublime:
My will and my desire were both revolved,
As a wheel in even motion driven,
By love, which moves the sun and other stars.

And then, what is the response that man is to make to this extraordinary love that God has lavished upon him? Well, it is nothing but love itself. “We love him because he first loved us.” God’s love for us makes us lovers of God. From the beginning it was made clear in the Bible that all the various commandments of God’s law were nothing but a working out of love for God. It is why Paul can say in one place “A curse on all who do not love the Lord Jesus Christ.” Such love is the mark of a Christian.

When you love someone, you instinctively want to please that person, to demonstrate your affection. Lovers love to give one another gifts. Parents love birthdays and Christmas because it is a delight for them to shower gifts upon their children and to make them happy in that way. That is what love is and what love does. And so with the love of God. One wishes to demonstrate his or her love and what better way to demonstrate love to a lover who is pleased by nothing so much as goodness than to live in goodness before him? And, not surprisingly, a large part of that goodness is the love of others. John puts it this way: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we ought to love one another.” And Jesus went further to say that God’s love, being so great and being lavished on unworthy people such as ourselves, people who were God’s enemies in fact, we should love even our enemies. We should love everyone, in other words. We should love others not only because God desires this and we love God, but because love is self-authenticating, it commends itself to those who experience it. God’s love makes us love love all the more and want to practice it as he practiced it toward us. One of the very interesting things about love is that one cannot have too much of it and one always wants more of it. We are sated with too much of other things but not love. No one who loves, really loves, does not realize that it would be better to love still more. But what can give us and bring from us such love? God’s love for us and in us. That is Christianity’s uniquely splendid answer to that most basic question of human life and experience.

And so it has been through the ages. Those who have experienced and felt God’s love, those who have come to know the omnipotent affection of the living God, have been transformed by that love, and have changed, by degrees, from being the self-centered and selfish people they were by nature, into those who principal ambition in life is to love: to love God and to love others in his name. “My how those Christians love one another,” Tertullian in the early 3rd century says was the begrudging confession of the Roman world as it beheld the life of the fledgling church.

The point of the Lord’s teaching here is that everything else that might be said about the Christian life, every other virtue, and every duty can be reduced very simply and without any diminishment to love. Take for example the list of the fruit of the Holy Spirit as Paul gives it in Gal. 5:22-23, the list of the various virtues that the Spirit of God produces in those who walk with Jesus Christ. The first is love, which a number of interpreters point out is mentioned first not simply because it is one among the others but because it is the principle of each of the others. “Joy” is love singing, said one Bible teacher. “Peace” is love resting. “Patience” is love enduring. “Kindness” is love’s self-forgetfulness. “Goodness” is love’s character. “Faithfulness” is love’s habit. “Gentleness” is love’s true touch. And “self-control” is love holding the reins.

But here the Lord emphasizes not the relationship between love and the fruit of the Spirit but between love and the commandments of God, between love and an obedient life, between love and duty. We live in a time when many have been led to feel that there is an inevitable conflict between love and duty, between love and law. We think of love as the free response of the heart, of love as emotion and feeling. We think of law as an outward constraint, a regulation that imposes itself upon us from outside. We think, in our sentimental age, that love is instinctive; it cannot be commanded; that love cannot be a law.

But it is not so. Love, as Paul says, is the fulfillment of the law as Jesus said it was here. Both are as much as saying that the law is love’s eyes; it helps us to see how to love God and others. We have, in our family, had something to do over these past years with four engagement rings. My son’s summer employment last year was primarily devoted to one purpose: to earn enough money to purchase an engagement ring so that he could propose marriage. He carefully investigated diamonds and their settings. He consulted with others. He learned the ins and outs of purchasing rings. And he accumulated money, a lot of money because diamond engagement rings cost a lot of money. Now we might think a young couple starting out could use that money for more important things than a piece of jewelry. They could pay off college expenses or save for graduate school; they could buy a car or even put a down-payment on a house. But no; he must buy a ring because there is a law that man who proposes to a woman in our culture must give her a diamond ring. But does anyone think that law is in conflict with love? Doesn’t everyone recognize that this obligation is nothing else but an obligation to express love in a meaningful, visible, tangible way? The law of the engagement ring is a law of love and keeping that law is simply genuinely to love.

Well, in the same way when Jesus says that if we love him we will keep his commandments, he as much as says that to obey him is the way to love him because it pleases and honors him. So far from love being in conflict with the law, without the law we would not know how to love and we would certainly not know how best to love.

The Lord makes a point of this, I think, by drawing these two commandments together: the commandment to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. That is to say, you cannot really love another human being – not as that person ought to be loved – if you do not first love God. And you cannot love God without loving others in the radical way in which God commands you love them, the same radical way in which he loved you. The love of your neighbor flows from and is empowered by your love for God and the love of God is demonstrated and practiced in your love for you neighbor because that is what pleases him most.

There is no asceticism here, as if one should go off into the desert by oneself to love God. Nor is there humanism here as if one’s neighbor could ever be truly and faithfully loved without reference to God’s love and without his love for you becoming the principle of your love for your neighbor. God’s love for you was eminently practical and this-worldly: it involved the incarnation, the suffering, and the death of his son for you and your sins. And in the same way, those schooled in that love and those moved and inspired by that love will want to love both God and others in the same eminently practical and worldly way: the way of sympathy, care, help, generosity, and sacrifice.

There is an interesting question here that is raised by the Lord’s arresting remark to the scribe as their conversation comes to an end. Why is this man near to the kingdom? What about his response in vv. 32 and 33 made Jesus think that this man really understood and was on the cusp of salvation? Well, rather obviously, it was because he understood that God was love, that the obligation of man was love, and that the true measure of a human life was nothing other than love. Not only did he grasp what God desires in man, but he understood what man would have to achieve to please God. He understood that love comes from deep within a man and is radical in the demands that it makes upon the self: to love God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind; to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves (and we really love ourselves; we are head over heels in love with ourselves; every thoughtful person knows that!).

This scribe was an expert in the law, but he understood that the principle of all the various commandments was this love for God and others. But it is just there that man comes face to face with his failure and his need for forgiveness. A man who genuinely understands the summons to love is the man who knows how comprehensively he has fallen short of God’s will. How lovely these commandments sound: love God with everything you are and your neighbor as yourself. But those beautiful words as much as toll the death knell for us all. So far are we from keeping these commandments that we must wonder if in all of our lives we have ever kept either of them even once! Have we ever loved God so completely and so passionately? Have we ever loved anyone else as much as we love ourselves? To selfish, small-minded people like ourselves, these commandments, more than any others, prove how much we need a Redeemer who would die for our sins, how much we need the forgiveness of God, and how much we need a new heart, a heart capable of such love as this. Surely this is one of if not the main reason this man was so near the kingdom of God. He was near to realizing he couldn’t please God by his own effort. The standard was set far too high for him. He needed what he could not supply. Everyone who knows that is near to the kingdom of God.

But for Christians who have found the Redeemer, have obtained the forgiveness of their sins, and have been given a new heart with new powers, what are we to take away from these mighty words our Savior spoke in the last few days of his ministry? Christian! Listen to me! What is the vision of life, of service that rises before your eyes as you live your life from day to day? What do you aspire to be and to do as a follower of Jesus Christ? Is it first and foremost, as Jesus said here it should be, to be a lover of God and of men. Radically to love God and to love men. Do you see every other duty of your life as a form of, as the practice of this love? Do you reduce every obligation finally to love? We can very easily forget to do this. We can think about so many things having to do with our Christian life and never get round to thinking of them in terms of love for God and love for others. Love can become just one thing among others instead of the be all and end all of our lives. And we can lose our clear focus for that reason. We don’t see everything we should do as nothing other than loving God and loving man. We don’t see our days and nights as opportunities to love God and others in his name. It is a very simplifying and clarifying way to consider your life. You just have to do two things, that is all. Just two! Love God with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself. Do that, you do all. Or, as Augustine put it: “Love and do whatever you wish.” [“Ama et quod vis fac.”] That is, if you are really acting in love – love for God and love for your neighbor – you will do right in every other way.

I read the other day something that fascinated me about Johann Sebastian Bach. It stuck in my mind because Bach’s birthday, March 23rd, was just two weeks ago. Whether you listen to classical music or not, you know Bach. You would recognize more of his compositions than you probably realize. You have heard them all your life: in church, at home, at school, in movie scores, even if you have never heard Bach played in a concert or symphony hall as many of us have. He is unquestionably the greatest or, at least, one of the two or three greatest composers of music in the history of the world. When the biologist Lewis Thomas of the Sloan-Kettering Institute was asked – as many influential intellectuals were at the time – what message he thought we should send to other possible civilizations in outer space in that rocket we fired up there some years ago with various artifacts of our civilization stored in its cone, he replied, “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.” Then he paused and said, “But that would be boasting.”

Anyway, what arrested my attention was this. When Bach was alive he was almost unnoticed as a composer. He was well known as an instrumentalist, a virtuoso at the harpsichord and the organ, but not as a composer. When he died, one of his biographers notes, there were something on the order of ninety obituaries that were written and that have survived. Of those ninety obituaries, only three mentioned him as a composer. “This is tantamount to remembering Shakespeare as a great actor.” [W.F. Buckley, Happy Days Were Here Again, 444] Perhaps the greatest composer in all of human history and only 3 of 90 of his obituarists even thought to mention that he was a composer!

My thought is: what a perfect reminder that is of how easy it is for human beings to miss the obvious, to concentrate and reflect and consider and all the while remain oblivious to the main thing, the great thing, the most important thing. We can think about our lives in so many different ways, we can think about what we need to do or to have done for us, we can worry about this or that defect that we are attempting to overcome or to compensate for, we can dream of this or that coming to pass, and all the while never think of love, of God’s love, of our love for God, of our love for others, which our Savior said is the main thing, the thing that draws everything else up into itself. Love and one does all. Love and one fulfills the entire law. Love and one lives as God would have a man or woman live. Love and Christ is pleased. Love and the great purposes of your life will be fulfilled, no matter what comes. Love and because God is love you will find yourself at one with God and with reality itself.

Thinking of what our Savior said to this scribe pray and pray again these lines from an ancient prayer:

Lord, Do thou turn me all into love,
And all my love into obedience,
And let my obedience be without interruption.