Memorizing Scripture

Verses for April 2007: Greatest Commandment

By Jerry Truex

Last month we memorized the Shema, meaning “Hear!” (Deut 6:4-5). This month we hear Jesus repeat and expand the Shema, which is our memory verse for this month:

Mark 12:29-31. 12:29 Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 12:30 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.' 12:31 The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." (NRSV)

1. Commandment. Just before Jesus’ gave this answer, a Jewish scribe had asked him what was the greatest commandment or mitzvah (pronounced MIZ-vah). I’ve been with Jews who, all of a sudden, stop the conversation so they can “do a mitzvah,” such as saying a blessing over a drink or food.

Jews do a mitzvah or a commandment to show loyalty to God. There are 613 commandments in the Torah—248 are positive (“Do this!”) and 365 are negative (“Don’t do this!”).  That’s a lot to remember. For that reason, rabbis during Jesus’ time tried to sum up the meaning of all the commandments to provide a vantage point from which the commandments could be understood and practiced. That’s what the scribe is asking Jesus to do. 

2. One or two commandments? Jesus quotes two commandments—love God (Deut 6:4-5) and love neighbor (Lev 19:18). Yet, in the final analysis, the two commandments constitute one great commandment. Our love is one, whether expressed vertically (God) or horizontally (neighbor).

3. With all your heart … soul … mind … strength. Mentioning all these parts of a person emphasizes that we are to love God with our whole person. Everything we do, everything we say, everything we think can express our love for God. In this way, Jesus does not limit love of God to 613 commandments. The commandments are helpful, because they give us concrete examples of how ancient Jews showed love for God. But no code of law can cover all the ways we express love. If we truly intend to love God and others, I believe God’s Spirit will show us how (Jn 14:15-16; 26).

4. Love your neighbor as yourself. Notice that Jesus assumes we are to love ourselves. We are to care for and protect ourselves. We are to meet our needs. But he says, “Don’t stop there!” Show that kind of love for others. Not everyone! Just the person near you—your neighbor. That will suffice.

May the word of Christ dwell in you (Col 3:16).

Jerry Truex is the Pastor of the Mennonite Church of the Servant; instructor of Biblical Studies at AMBS-Great Plains.