Jesus Preaching, Rembrandt, “The Hundred Guilder Print”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him,
“Which is the first of all the commandments?” Mark 12:28.
There comes a time for almost everything and everyone where a “reboot” becomes necessary. For example, when one retires from work after a long and loyal service, the reboot will simply be, “what am I going to do with my life now?” Computer programs sometimes have to be rebooted for a fresh start. One’s wardrobe probably requires a rebooting now and again (including the boots) and acceptable surplus given to those in need. Another way of putting is a “fresh start”. Today’s gospel I think is an example. Jesus had now arrived from Jericho and was in Jerusalem, the final stage of his messianic journey. His mission was almost complete. He had taught his followers his essential message, he had worked the miracles prophesied from of old as pointing to the long-promised Messiah, and now his mission was virtually complete. I believe today’s gospel, then, represents a “reboot”. One of the officials in the Temple, a scribe, asked Jesus a simple question, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”. In other words, what is the foundation of all of God’s teaching? Jesus’ answer was so clear and convincing that the scribe himself praised the Lord for his insight. Love God, Neighbor and Self. It was not a new teaching, as we see from today’s first reading, and (though not in today’s readings), there is this from the Book of Leviticus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the children of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” (Lv.19:18). Jesus linked these together, to the delight of the scribe in the Temple, and his summary has become the foundation of the entire Christian message.
Now the passage from Deuteronomy is also one of, if not the, most important scripture passages for our Jewish brothers and sisters. It is called the Shema Yisrael, or simply “Hear O Israel”. It holds the central position of both morning and evening prayers as a simple declaration of total belief and acceptance of God’s singularity and power. It is also a reflection of the first commandment “I am the Lord your God….” It is also the last prayer uttered by believers as they fall asleep at night, and as they pass from this world. In other words it is central to the very identity of being Jewish. So when Jesus is asked today’s question, what is the greatest commandment, it is not surprising that he states the Shema Yisrael. But he adds to it. The love of neighbor and self, though not placed first – love of God is supreme – it is clearly second in rank, and so they are above all other commands. And all other rules and regulations clearly depend on this supreme command. This command can be considered to be the heart and soul of monotheistic belief; remember that the supreme belief in Islam is that “there is no god but Allah”. In adding love of neighbor and self to this, Jesus linked human behavior not simply to honoring God, but on respecting neighbor and self. This is logical and reasonable if you accept the Christian teaching that we are all adopted children of God. We must show the same respect and honor the dignity of all other people as God’s children.
So as we approach the end of the church’s year we are getting a timely reminder of the foundation of our belief, one we share with the other two great monotheistic religions. This is that God is first, last and always. But then we Christians acknowledge that all of us humans, as children of God, deserve and require respect and dignity no matter what. It is our duty and obligation to act on that belief which may be very difficult at times. But Jesus himself never wavered in that, even forgiving those who crucified him for no reason. God give us the strength and conviction to do likewise.