The First of the Commandments

This coming Sunday is the 31st Sunday in Year B. Our gospel is taken from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is asked which of the commandments is the first and greatest.

28 One of the scribes…asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” The response is very familiar to Christians: 29 Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! 30 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. 32 The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’

Shock of shocks – this individual scribe agreed with Jesus. The scribe’s question in our text was not posed “to test” Jesus as in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28. The question is, in fact, a familiar one from Jewish tradition: “Is there a way of summarizing the commandments?” Jesus gave a traditional answer. The first part is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (Shemaʿ ), but combined with another part from Leviticus 19:18.

What is interesting in the Markan gospel is that only Mark quotes v.4 from the traditional Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God: the Lord is one.” The traditional response is the imperative command: “Hear.” It is a present tense imperative, which implies continuous or repeated action: “Keep on listening!” “Continue to hear!” This command to listen is heard frequently in Mark, e.g., in the parable of the sower (4:3) and at the Transfiguration: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (9:7). Perhaps the “first command of all” is: “Listen!”

What follows this initial command are the consequences of truly listening and hearing as indicated by the shift to a future tense: “You shall love…”; a thing that cannot be commanded and still remain true.

Stoffergen offers an insight on love and its command. He writes: “Could you imagine a young couple on their first date? The woman thinks to herself, ‘I really like this guy. He’s so handsome. He’s so charming. I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life with him. What can I do to get him to love me?’ Then you hear the woman say in a stern voice: ‘I command you to love me. You will marry me. We will live happily ever after.’ Would a marriage like that work? Can love be commanded?”

The underlying word for the verb “to love” is agano. It implies action rather than emotion. No command can change one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Rules might make us act more lovingly towards other people but not “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” But then again there is one other time agano is used in Mark’s gospel.

In the story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking him what he must do to inherit the kingdom of God (10:17-22), we read: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Jesus’ love for the man was evident in the action recommended. Jesus’ response was not a Hallmark card moment, but a response for the good of the other. Jesus commands us to love our enemies (in Matthew 5:44). Our response might well be all action accompanied by feelings not commonly described as “love.” So, there is a sense in which love can be commanded.

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