Over the past few years, this passage of Scripture has become more and more meaningful to me. In Jesus’ day, the Jewish rabbis would spend a lot of time discussing and prioritizing the laws in order of importance. So the question that the scribe puts to Jesus (“Which commandment is the most important of all?” Mark 12:28) would have been a common one. Jesus responds by referring to the Shema in Deuteronomy 6, also known in Judaism as “The Great Teaching”.
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 might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Jesus affirms the commonly held assumption that love for Yahweh was the greatest command, the ultimate goal of Israel’s existence. It is no accident that the Deuteronomist records this great teaching immediately on the heels of The Ten Commandments (in Hebrew, “the ten words”). The first and primary commandment God gives His people at Sinai is that they should have no other gods before Him. This is what it means to love God with heart, soul, mind, strength. Love for God is devotion, worship. Love for God has always been the first and primary commandment.
But then Jesus does something a little different (as He was prone to do). He reaches back deep in Torah, dusts off the latter half of a forgotten passage in Leviticus 19 – “…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” – and resuscitates it by placing it squarely alongside the Shema. For Jesus, love for God is intrinsically tied to love for others. It seems there is no place in the Gospel of Jesus for a love for God that does not manifest itself in love for neighbor.
Jesus is actually standing in a long stream of Jewish prophets who proclaimed God’s will that His people tend to the needs of the alien, the stranger, the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, the least of these. God never intended for His people to indulge in self-absorbed navel gazing; His desire was always for His people to be a light to the nations. But where Israel failed miserably at this, Jesus succeeds. The command has never changed; only know, we’ve been shown The Way.
But this Way of Jesus — this Way of loving God with all that is within me and all that is without me; this way of loving others with a relentless, unquenchable love; this way of loving others the way God loves them — it continues to challenge me. I’m more and more convinced that this Way leads to only one place: the cross. You can’t love like this without it leading to death.
And that scares me.
To love as Jesus loved is risky.