“One of the scribes approached. When he heard them debating and saw that Jesus answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which command is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is “Listen, Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other command greater than these.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been around someone who is just different from all the people around them? That’s always an interesting experience. These folks…well…they’re just different. They think differently. They behave differently. They speak differently. It’s like they are just operating on a different wavelength. The whole world around them could be focused on one thing and when the time comes for them to speak up they’re talking about something completely different. The character Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter series was like this. Whenever she spoke it was about something that seemed completely off the wall relative to the conversation she was in, but if you thought about it very long, she could see the truth better than the rest of them could. As Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders were in the midst of a fierce debate, a scribe came up who was just different from everyone else and asked his own question. This question turned out to be the most important one of all.
The tension in the air surrounding this growing group in the corner of the temple courtyard had to be growing thick enough that you could almost see it. The Pharisees and Herodians had come up to Jesus so smugly in the beginning. They figured this was going to be a quick exchange, and He would be toast. When He not only didn’t break, but didn’t even bend to their pressure, they realized they were going to be in for a longer fight than they had planned. I wonder if there were other groups there bringing questions to Him than what Mark reports here. Perhaps by the time the Sadducees went the whole group was starting to get desperate and were lobbing rhetorical hail Mary’s in hopes of getting something to land. But Jesus just kept deflecting and redirecting and providing one perfect answer after another.
Then he walked over.
The way Mark tells this part of the story, as the confrontation between Jesus and the others was getting more and more tense, a lonely scribe heard the commotion and came over purely out of interest. I wish we knew more about this man. Maybe he was the kind of scribe who was particularly committed to his books and scrolls such that he didn’t venture out of his little corner of the temple very often. He just happened to be on a brain break when this whole scene was unfolding. He came over because he was curious what could so capture the attention of a crowd like this on a Wednesday afternoon.
He walked up and started listening to the back and forth, and the longer he listened, the more impressed he became. Jesus was amazing. His wisdom and knowledge were unparalleled. These were some of the brightest minds of his people posing the most difficult questions they could conceive and Jesus was answering them without even breaking a sweat. He wasn’t trying and the other side was growing desperate. It was a fascinating ordeal.
Then his mind began to wonder a bit like it was so prone to doing. As he thought about the kinds of questions they were asking and the kinds of responses Jesus was giving, he started to get a little irritated. Here they had clearly the greatest teacher his people had ever produced and they were asking one gotcha question after another. It was like they were more interested in trapping Him in saying something incriminating than they were learning at the feet of this genius scholar. They should be asking questions of a great deal more substance than they had so far. The question of the Sadducees was just embarrassing. So, when there was a break in the debate, he shouted his question from the back of the group.
“Which command is the most important of all?”
For a moment, everything stopped. This was a common question. For a people as steeped in law as the Jews were, the debate over which of the myriad of commands they were supposed to obey to keep God happy was a frequent one. Everyone talked about this from time to time. It was a water cooler conversation among the scribes and a regular evening debate topic for families looking to pass the time around the fire before going to bed. The reasons this conversation happened so often varied. The scholars genuinely wanted to know so they could practice it more completely. There were no shortage of opinions on the matter either. Average folks wanted to know so they could focus on this one thing a little more fully because maybe it would count extra with God for when they let their guard down a bit on the other commands.
Whatever the reason, this was something to which everyone wanted an answer. But for the Jewish religious leaders trying to get Jesus, it was a common question. This wasn’t a gotcha question. Jesus’ answer may serve to stir up some debate, but these debates had all happened before. They weren’t going to be able to use Jesus’ response to this against Him. He just about couldn’t get this one wrong. Why would this weirdo ask this question? Couldn’t he see what they were trying to do? This was a distraction from the mission. This gave Jesus a break to regroup. They were starting to get Him on the ropes. Sure, all His answers were consistently perfect, but they thought they could just see the beginning of some cracks in His façade. Why couldn’t he have stayed in his cubicle today? Did his brain break have to happen right now?
Then Jesus answered. And He was right again.
Jesus’ response was brilliant. It was right on every single level. It was theologically accurate. It was philosophically sound. It was pastorally astute. It took the whole Law and boiled it down to one simple, memorable idea. It was perfect. This was something the people could do. This idea revolutionized the entire approach they would have to take to teaching the Law. Yes, there were 613 commands and all the additions of the Talmud, but if you could get just this one thing in two parts right, the rest would fall into place. This two part answer could serve as a lens through which all the rest could be filtered. You didn’t have to worry any longer about remembering the endless minutiae of the Law. You just needed to know two things: Love God and love people.
Jesus’ answer was also incredibly threatening. It was threatening to the entire reason for their existence as a class. If keeping the Law was really this simple, did you really need a class of priests and scribes and lawyers anymore? Did you need a bunch of Pharisees to remind you of how far short of the standard you were falling? As long as you could remember to love God and love people, you were set. Even the men who were so committed to His downfall could see the brilliance and wisdom of what Jesus had just given them.
For his part, the scribe was ecstatic. This was beyond what he had even hoped for. It was incredible. His praise of Jesus’ response was effusive. “You are right, teacher. You have correctly said that he is one, and there is no one else except him. And to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is far more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” As far as biblical compliments go, that one is delivered by someone who was fairly well bouncing off the walls with enthusiasm. Jesus was just as complimentary in response.
For us, this scribe is a reminder that we can easily get focused on the wrong things and overlook the ones that matter most. The men who were trying to trap Jesus in His words had an audience with the king of heaven who could have told them anything they wanted to know about God. He could have answered their deepest, most burning questions. He could have revealed the secrets of God’s nature to them. The opportunity they were squandering was the greatest one of their lives. But their focus was on the wrong thing and so they missed it entirely. This scribe got it right and we are still benefitting from his focus. If you want to keep God happy, if you want to stay in a right relationship with Him, there are really only two things you have to keep in mind: Love God and love people. Everything else is commentary. Jesus would later simplify this even more: Love one another. Just do that and you’re going to be on the right track.