The First of All Commandments and the Second, As Well
After the last round of thrust-parry-thrust-touché between Jesus and the Sadducees, a scribe asked his question. He asked it because he liked how Jesus had dealt with the previous question, and it was this: “Which is the first commandment of all?”
Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God is one Lord; and 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.’ And the second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:29-30).
The first part of this quotes from Deuteronomy 6. Significantly, Jesus included this theological prologue—“the Lord our God is one.” This recapitulated his answer to the Sadducees, God’s self-identifying formula to Moses (Exodus 3:14), “I am who I am.” The present tense, Jesus said, shows that God is present and presence. Jesus required his Sadducee questioners to confront the enigma that all of time is present to God, all humans are present to God, all of God is present at any time; to admit that their model of the past is not God’s reality. This is such a mystery. It may be one of the questions a human can pose but, when answered, cannot understand.
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5). This particular quotation from Deuteronomy 6 has two words for God in it: Elohim, which is plural (remember “Let us make human in our image…male and female”) and Yahweh, which is singular. Specifically, “Yahweh, our Elohim, is one Yahweh.” (This nuance is lost in Mark, written in Greek, in which the words are Kyrios and Theos, both singular.)
Again, we are plunging into an ocean of mystery. This is (or is like?) the mystery of the Trinity, the three-in-one, affirmed by Christian creeds for centuries, often in response to challenges to trinitarian belief. Jesus emphasized the unity of purpose between himself and his Father, and in John’s Gospel, emphasized the unity of substance between himself and his Father, and said that when he was no longer physically present, the Father would send the Spirit of truth to guide them. The Trinity fits in well with the Elohim part of the Deuteronomy quotation.
The rest of the quotation is about loving God. Robert Alter says that this emphasis on love in Deuteronomy is new, that it is an addition to the traditional “fear of the Lord.” He also adds that it is the word used in treaties which pledge loyalty.
Alter goes on to explain that the heart is the seat of understanding and is also associated with emotions. The “soul” is better translated “life-breath” or the “essential self.” And the word “might” is usually an adverb “very,” meaning “over the top.” (Alter, Moses, 641, n.) So if I put this into my own words: You shall love the Lord your God with all your understanding and feelings, with your essential self and your life-breath, and with an unbreakable and complete loyalty.
I notice that Jesus added “with all your mind” into this list. The questioner responded with his own list, which I suspect we are to consider parallel: “the heart, the understanding, the soul, the strength.” They were on the same page, despite the differences—Love God with all you are. This is the most important of all.
The second, which Jesus said is like the first, is to love your neighbor as yourself. This also derives from the Torah: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18).
This positive command occurs in the Levitical context of many “thou shalt not” admonitions centering on the following:
- Do not reap all your field, but leave some for the poor and the stranger
- Do not steal
- Do not deal falsely
- Do not lie to one another
- Do not take false oaths in God’s name
- Do not oppress your neighbor
- Do not rob your neighbor
- Do not withhold the wages of the day-laborer overnight
- Do not curse the deaf
- Do not trip up the blind
- Do no injustice in judgment
- Do not be partial to the poor
- Do not defer to the rich
- Do not slander others
- Do not take vengeance nor bear a grudge
All these are implicit in loving the neighbor as one’s self, but are made explicit for those of us who want to limit our love for our neighbors. Further on in the Leviticus chapter this occurs: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” There is no exception to the command, in other words.
The questioner and the crowd before Jesus were well aware of the context of this second command and likely squirmed over their own failures to love. Even if we can say, “Oh, I love God wholeheartedly and more than anyone or anything else,” can we say, “I love my neighbor as myself, and my behavior toward my neighbor is in line with the expectations of Jesus’s Testament?” I’m feeling a little uncomfortable right now.