Ten, Two or One? A Scribe, the Kingdom of God and You

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 31
October 31, 2021
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: In this exchange with an earnest and well-meaning scribe, Jesus teaches the scribe, and us, not only what is the greatest commandment, but what is the one overarching purpose of every commandment.

So then, how would you answer that scribe's question? Which commandment is first of all? Out of the minimum 10 we were encouraged to memorize as children, which one would you pick as our Judeo-Christian prime directive? Hesitant though one might be to risk contradicting Jesus - and Paul, for that matter - what would you say? Which of them do you think is the first (and here, we are not talking only about the numerical order in which the Old Testament states them)? Which of them is the greatest?

But then again - is it even valid to declare one "greater" than the others - are they not all equally "great"? Or might this be negotiable, according to different personalities, or in accord with specific situations or questions of whose ox got gored. Could it be that different commandments speak to different people or that different people might need different commandments - out of all we've been given - to count for, to stand in for, all of them? What is the motivation for the scribe's question? What is Jesus getting at, in his terse reply to the curious scribe?

The Decalogue offers a kind of built-in answer to the scribe's question. The first, and by implication the greatest, commandment is given straightforwardly to us, by God, in Exodus 20: "[Y]ou shall have no other gods before me."1 This is the first of the Ten Commandments numerically, but there is nothing in it about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, as Jesus mentions in today's reading from Mark. This commandment importantly but simply acknowledges that God is God and there is no other.

That is where it all begins, but does it end there? Jesus, in his reply to that scribe, implies that it doesn't. Jesus doesn't reference the Ten Commandments. Rather, he cites the opening of a passage Jews call the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6. Specifically, he quotes verse 5 - "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might" - but he adds to it, "with all your mind."

There is something greater, more primal, at stake than rote repetition, simple memorization or wooden application of law inscribed on tablets, something greater than even pious acknowledgment of the greatness of God. That 'something greater' is love. This particular scribe - unlike most others Jesus comes in contact with - is beginning to catch glimpses of that. He is not far from love - not far, anyway, from an intellectual grasp of its ultimate importance. And so, Jesus says to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

Law and love, God and neighbor

The scribe doesn't ask after a second greatest commandment; Jesus volunteers that: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" referencing Leviticus 19:18. Perhaps Jesus is making the point that the two are really one commandment - there is only one "greatest commandment": Love God. Or perhaps he is making a larger, more nuanced point: Out of this primal love of God will flow forth, inevitably, love of neighbor as oneself. The two are inseparably bound.

Jesus' reply is, as indicated earlier, a citation from Deuteronomy 6. But this first half of the equation really is the strongest, greatest or however you want to put it. Love God with everything you've got - heart, soul, mind and strength - and everything else that really matters follows from it. How do you know what you're loving is the "real" God, and not a self-serving fabrication? Love of the "real" God - as opposed to some self-serving idol or other - leads to love of neighbor as oneself.

And the scribe hastens to agree. He elaborates by pointing out that this love of God leading to love of neighbor is more important than religious ritual - "all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" - which is to say, from a scribe's perspective, more important than anything . And Jesus tells this scribe (this is interesting, in that scribes usually present as Jesus' enemies2) that he is "not far from the kingdom of God."

Some commentators say, rather dismissively, that this is the equivalent of Jesus saying "close, but no cigar." But really, it sounds like a compliment. In the first place, Jesus, the text tells us, acknowledges that the scribe "answered wisely." And "not far from the kingdom of God" is as close as any of us can hope to get. And in verses immediately following these, Jesus minces no words in his harsh criticism of scribes.3

This scribe is "not far from the kingdom of God." God's kingdom is drawing near, and the scribe's answer reveals that he belongs to it. The kingdom is drawing near. The scribe's understanding of love's preference over law is what draws him near. Love pares the Ten Commandments down to two - or really one, as we have already said. Does this therefore reduce the significance of the Ten Commandments - or even do away with them?

The focus and purpose of commandments

Commandments - 10, or 2 - are not ends in themselves, not formulae to be memorized for their own sake. They point us toward the kingdom. They lay out for us markers on the narrow way that leads us to life forever with God. They are entrance requirements for, and signs of initiation into, the kingdom of God.

Ten Commandments? Two commandments? How many do we need? What have we, in the "Decalogue" we were encouraged to memorize as kids? A list of instructions on how to climb on up to heaven? Which of them is most important? Or are they all equally important?

Elsewhere in the New Testament, in Romans 13:8-10, Paul makes a claim similar to the implication of Jesus regarding love being necessary to fulfill the law of God. It should be said that this perspective of Paul precedes the written Gospels by a decade or two. Hence what we are getting, in Paul, and in Jesus' conversation with the scribe, is teaching that has been embedded in the church from its earliest days. What we are getting, in Jesus' interaction with the scribe, is as close to "Christianity 101" as we're going to get: Love. Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself.

"Owe no one anything," Paul says in the Romans 13 passage, "except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." He goes on to imply that obedience to this directive takes precedence over all the others, indeed, encompasses all the others: "The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet'; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"4

No "greatest commandment," no "first commandment," but one .

One word.

The one commandment

Really, Paul is going even farther than Jesus. Paul is condensing everything to "Love your neighbor as yourself" - the one commandment!

Where do we go with this? What must be our answer to that question, "Which commandment is the first of all?" The commandment which is the first of all is not even one of the "Big Ten"! It is the source and focus and purpose of all the commandments. It is what gives all the commandments their meaning. In fact, without it, they have no meaning; they are just words engraved in stone. It is the beginning and the middle and the end of the entire walk to and with the Lord, onward to the kingdom, to the end. That one word is the end, as well as the beginning. That one word is the journey itself, from beginning to end.

That one word is love .

And how do we know what love is?

How do we know we love ?

We don't know . If we truly knew, there would have been no need for commandments, or for Jesus to come and show us the way. We don't know, but we can begin to learn, when we direct our love toward God first - God, who is the source of love, whose very being is encompassed by love. We can begin to understand that the love of God will inevitably flow out to, and include, the neighbor, the ones we "like" and the ones we don't. All of them, neighbors, are children of God, created in the image of God, like us, like the God we profess to love. That God-love, mutually directed, flowing out toward neighbor - that is the very essence, the purpose and focus, of the commandments.

Everything is summed up in this one word: Love - your neighbor as yourself. This is how we know God, and how we know that we know God: through love of neighbor as our self. Life with God does not end with knowing that, it begins there. The end is found in going forth and doing it.

Shall we?