In today’s readings we encounter a familiar passage. One of the scribes came to Jesus and asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
One of the great leaders of Judaism was the sage and scholar, Rabbi Hillel. He was also the president of the Sanhedrin and the highest authority among the Pharisees in Jerusalem during the reigns of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus. Rabbi Hillel is thought to have died during the time Jesus was a youth. Possibly he heard Hillel teach as a young boy (Lk 2:41-51); certainly, Jesus would be familiar with Hillel’s teachings as he began his public ministry.
There is a story told about Hillel when approached by a non-believer who ask the rabbi for a concise summary of the Jewish faith. Hillel told him: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.” A concise version of the “Golden Rule” versions of which are recorded in 6th century BCE China (Lao Tse), 5th century BCE China (Confucius), and ancient Greece (Thales). It would seem that all major religions or ethical systems have their own version of the Golden Rule.
When Jesus is asked “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied by quoting Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and with your whole mind, and with your whole strength.” (Deut 6:4-5). That was a familiar instruction, one that pious Jews recited in their morning and evening prayer services, urged their children to say at bedtime, carried in script on their wrists, and attached to the doorposts of their homes in a small container called a mezuzah.
But then Jesus added as an ancillary instruction a quotation from the Holiness Code in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev 19:18b). “There is no other commandment greater than these,” Jesus said.
We have a habit of overlooking the final phrase “as yourself,” or consider it merely a form of comparison, a measuring stick, even a quid pro quo, on which most other maxims on the love of neighbor rely. But I think Jesus intended that his hearers realize that they are indeed valued by God, that Love loves them, and they ought to treat themselves as a favored child or a prized possession. Jesus was indicating that concern for others and oneself was a natural consequence of a fully integrated devotion to God. And that particular fidelity and worship ought to be so all encompassing as to unite our inner dispositions of emotion, spirit, and intelligence, along with the powers of our bodies to act.
Mark’s gospel was addressed to communities of Gentiles encircled by hundreds of cults and idols, each requiring holocausts and the violent sacrifice of animals. So, the realization that the Law could be fulfilled in its entirety through compassion, generosity, and the love and worship of God would have been a source of relief even as it inspired a new sense of personal responsibility.