28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And 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.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And 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, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Many of you will no doubt remember the terrifying reign that Idi Amin held over Uganda throughout the 1970s. It is estimated that 300,000 people were killed in Uganda during that period. Amin made certain Christian communities the object of his wrath because of their support of the ruler who proceeded him. Many Christian leaders were also killed. Ronald Kernaghan passes on a story about one Christian leader’s response to Amin that is particularly powerful.
Festo Kivengere was the archbishop of Uganda during the awful days of Idi Amin. Idi Amin was one of the most savage tyrants in recent history. During a brutal reign from 1971 to 1979 the man who claimed to be “Lord of all the beasts of the earth and fishes of the sea” orchestrated the torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom belonged to the Anglican church that Bishop Kivengere led. Before Idi Amin was driven from power, Bishop Kivengere was asked what he would do if he found himself with a loaded gun in the presence of Idi Amin. The bishop replied. “I would hand the gun to the President and say, ‘I think this your weapon. It is not mine. My weapon is love.’”
This is an amazing response and one that stops us in our tracks. In fact, Kivengere went on to publish a book in 1977 entitled I Love Idi Amin. Unbelievable.
What are we to make of this? The unduly and unjustly skeptical might simply accuse Kivengere of grandstanding, but, frankly, that makes no sense. Kivengere almost certainly frustrated some of his own friends by his refusal to blast the trumpet of hatred at Amin. And some might say that this kind of sentiment is actually wrong, that it is wrong to say you love somebody like Idi Amin. Yet there is another possibility and it is one upon which we should give serious reflection. It is this: Festo Kivengere had walked so long with Jesus and had become so filled with the love of Christ that he actually could not help but love his enemies. His life had become so filled with love that it actually spilled the banks and touched all those around him.
I consider this shocking possibility—shocking, because it is so very unusual—and I ask myself whether or not I might come to love like this as well?
In our text, Jesus is approached yet again by a religious leader who wants to ask him a question. Jesus’ answer points to the grand truth that Festo Kivengere actually dared to live out: the essence of life in and with God is radical love, for God first and for our neighbors second, and this is made possible by the fact that we have been loved by God.
The entire law of God can be summed up in the word love: love of God and love of others.
Jesus has been approached by the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees. Now He is approached by one of the scribes.
28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”
Let us first note that while Mark does not assign any motive to the scribe, Matthew, in Matthew 22, does:
34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
The scribe, then, should be seen as a continuation of the line of religious elites who were setting traps for Jesus in an effort to catch and then destroy Him. Even so, there is something unique about this encounter, something that sets it apart from the crassness of the others’ efforts. There is a kind of connection between Jesus and this scribe and a note of hope that we do not see in the other more directly confrontational encounters.
The scribe asks a question: “Which commandment is the most important of all?” There is, of course, a religious and political context to this question. David Garland writes that “[l]ater rabbinic tradition gave the total number of commandments as 613, of which 248 were positive commands and 365 prohibitions. Some were considered to be lighter (smaller) and some weightier (greater.)” We might almost think of this astonishing number of laws as being as perplexing to the average Jewish person as the IRS tax code is to the average American. For that reason, a question about how to sum up the law into a core principle or teaching was not only understandable, it was also an effort that had been made in Israel’s past more than once.
Jesus’ response is telling. He quotes the shema, the core creed of Israel. It is originally found in Deuteronomy 6.
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.
This is significant. It is significant because it reveals that Jesus saw Himself as speaking and operating in harmony with the foundational creed of Israel. So there is continuity here, yet Jesus does two unique things with how He quotes the shema.
29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And 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.’
First, Jesus adds a word to the shema. In Deuteronomy 6, the shema calls upon Israel to love God with “heart…soul and…might.” In Jesus’ quotation of it, He says we are to love God with “heart…soul…mind and…strength.” It is an interesting thing to do and one that has caused interpreters to wonder, “Why does this mean?” Some suggest that it is simply a fuller fleshing-out of what the shema already says, that it is not, in other words, really all that provocative of a thing to do. Undoubtedly it is a fuller fleshing out of the shema, but the question is, “Why?”
I would suggest that Jesus adds “mind” because He knows that it is in the mind that the scribe’s own journey toward God gets sidetracked. The mind matters. In Philippians 2:5, Paul calls upon the Philippians Christians to “[h]ave this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We are called to have the mind of Christ within us. The undredeemed mind keeps us from God. The redemption of the mind is profoundly important.
The second interesting thing that Jesus does is communicate a second commandment alongside the shema.
31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The very essence of the law and the very essence of one’s relationship with God is love: love of God and love of neighbor. Paul will later say the very same in Romans 13.
8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
And, of course, he will communicate the very same in an even more powerful and beautiful way in 1 Corinthians 13.
1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Love, we might say, is the sine qua non, the “without which there is nothing” of the Christian faith. Here is the only remedy for cold and empty religiosity, the kind of religion that knows the answers but does not live out the truths: love.
I have known Christians who have a great love for the church but not for God and man. I have known Christians who have a great love for doctrine and theology but not the God about whom they speak. I have known Christians who have a great love for their own salvation but not for their Savior. I have known Christians who have a great love for the Bible but not the one from whom it came and to whom it points. I have known Christians who have a great love for the act of witnessing but not actually for those to whom they are witnessing. I have known Christians who love the machinery of the church but not the Savior of the church, who love the symbol of the cross but not the one who died thereon, who love the waters of baptism but not the reality behind the symbol.
And, of course, there are always those Christians who actually love the law more than they love God, who love the “do’s” and “do not’s” more than the Lawgiver. But to love the law and not love God is to show that you do not understand the law at all. Love of law but not of God makes us legalists devoid of true and saving faith. Love of God but not of neighbor shows that we do not actually love God at all. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” Jesus said in John 13:35.
Would you say that you love God and love your neighbor? If you do not, then, however else you might think you love God, your love is based on a misunderstanding and is misguided.
Yet we are able to love only because we have been loved.
Of course, love of God and neighbor can seem a daunting task in a fallen world in which we are most naturally inclined to love only ourselves. So how can we do this? We can love God and neighbor only because we have first been loved by God.
To approach this great truth let us consider the scribe’s response to Jesus’ answer and then Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s response.
32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And 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, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Here we can see and feel how this encounter with the scribe feels different from the hostile encounters that preceded it. First, the scribe appears to give a genuine acknowledgment and to have genuine appreciation for what Jesus has said. “You are right, Teacher,” he says. Even though we know from Matthew’s account that the scribe stands alongside the others who were seeking to trip and trap Jesus, he yet agrees with Jesus and seems to do so with sincerity. He repeats Jesus’ answer in an affirming manner and Mark reveals that “Jesus saw that he answered wisely.”
Even so, Jesus’ response, while hopeful, was a bit enigmatic: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
I would like to suggest that this can be taken in two ways. The first is likely the dominant view and that is that Jesus is saying that scribe is close to salvation, close to being in a right relationship with God. Close, that is, but not yet in. In other words, he has understanding and he knows the draw of truth yet he has not yet fully embraced it.
Could this be why Jesus adds the “mind” to His quotation of the shema? In doing so was He saying to the scribe that, while close, the scribe’s mind had not yet been willing to embrace the radical truth that the God he knew so much about had actually come in Christ? Perhaps so.
One thing is for sure: if this is the scribe to whom Matthew attributes the motivation of wanting to “test” Jesus (and this would certainly seem to be the case) then however close he was to God in his understanding it was on the person of Christ that he stumbled and fell. It was on this point or, more precisely, this Person, that his mind had shut out certain uncomfortably radical possibilities.
And this is tragic for surely the great and pitiful irony of this encounter was that the scribe, while having an appreciation of the truth that we must love God and neighbor and while recognizing that in this love we find the fulfillment of the whole law was even then rejecting the one who not only is the love of God but who alone can equip us to have the love that he professed to believe in! The scribe knew he needed love but he failed to accept that Jesus and Jesus alone was the key to this love.
Put another way, the scribe did not or would not recognize that only in Christ can we ever love God and neighbor as we ought for in Christ alone we find the divine love that empowers us to do so.
Put yet another way, the scribe professed a belief in the idea of love while neglecting the Person of love, Jesus.
And we must say that this tragic circumstance happens quite literally all the time. Many people have a vague love for a vague god and many more have a professed love in humanity. Even so, if we reject the incarnation of divine love in the person of Jesus Christ we reject the only offer of love that enables us to love in return.
We love because we have been loved.
The great articulation of this is found in 1 John 4, a text that is critically important if we are to understand the true nature of love.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16 So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.
How awesomely and even devastatingly beautiful this is! John professes in powerful words that we can love God and neighbor only when we are caught up in the self-giving love of God in the sending of Christ and His Holy Spirit. Notice the emphasis on God’s giving of Himself:
- “he has given us of his Spirit”
- “the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world”
- “God abides in him”
- “we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us”
- “God is love”
- “God abides in him”
- “We love because he first loved us.”
We love, in other words, not by have a more therapeutic understanding of our own selves—our minds, our hearts, our psychology, our emotional constitutions—we love by having a bigger and bigger view and understanding of who God is and what exactly it is that He has done for us in Jesus! Get caught up in and become a recipient of the great and grand expression of God’s love for humanity in the sending, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus and you will know a love so powerful and so beautiful that it will set you free to love in turn!
I mentioned that there are two ways to understand Jesus’ statement, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The first, as I have just shown, is to see it as a reference to the scribe being close to salvation but not truly saved. But what if the term is best interpreted in a very literal way. What if Jesus is saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God…I am literally right here in front of you.” Yes, what if Jesus was making a profoundly literal spatial statement: “You are not far from the kingdom of God…in fact, you are talking to it right now.”
Leonard Sweet and Frank Biola have referenced a fascinating title for Jesus that was applied to Him by the church father Origen.
Origen said that Jesus is the autobasilia. He is, in Himself, the kingdom.
Yes, Jesus is, in Himself, the kingdom, and the scribe was not far from Him.
And neither are you.
He is right here.
He is so very, very close, this King Jesus.
Jesus, the Loved One who loves us and calls us into His divine love for the Father and the world. Jesus, the ultimate “I love you!”
You might be close but are you His?
Love God. Love your neighbor. And do these things because you have received the life-giving love of God in Christ.
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.235.
 David E. Garland, “Mark.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol.1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.476.
 Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola, Jesus Manifesto (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), p.106.