March 21-22 sermon resource

Great Commandment

  • Main text: Mark 12:28-44
  • Accompanying text: Psalm 89:1-4

What this passage means to us

Have you ever thought about what it was like to be a scribe or a Pharisee? We are all aware of the stereotypes, but did they all fit into the same mould? A few of them, such Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, began to doubt their traditions and to follow Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote that, before his conversion, he was “in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). “The Pharisees were passionately spiritual Jews. They believed that the whole of Israel was called to be a holy nation of priests” [1]. One famous teacher, Hillel, was noted for his kindness. It was Hillel who reputedly coined the phrase, “Do not judge your friend until you have stood in his place” [2]. Jesus “taught a version of Hillel’s Golden Rule, when he argued that the whole of the Law could be summed up in the maxim: do unto others as you would have them do unto you” [3]. It was Hillel’s grandson, Gamaliel, who intervened to prevent the apostles being put to death (see Acts 5:33-35). At the time of Jesus, however, many of the Pharisees, “who were deeply religious, had become corrupted, legalistic and rigid” [4].

As we read of how Jesus condemned the hypocrisy and practices of the scribes and Pharisees, it’s worthwhile remembering that, after a few days, Jesus died for them as well as for the rest of humanity. They were included in his sacrifice, and, for them and for us, in Jesus there is no more condemnation. While they were still in sin, Christ died for them, as he did for us.

Perhaps when asked a question about the greatest commandment, we would have thought to choose one of the ten commandments, but Jesus did not do so, and neither would the scribes and Pharisees have done so because they knew the answer. Deuteronomy 6:5 formed part of the prayers on their phylacteries, which prayers were recited daily. The whole topic had been the subject of debate in Jewish theological schools. The second greatest is taken from what, on the surface of it, would appear to be an obscure scripture, Leviticus 19:18. Both these passages from the Torah had been elevated by leading Jewish rabbis. Philo, a Jewish scholar who tried to marry aspects of Greek and Jewish teachings and philosophy, lived at the time of Christ. He wrote, “of the innumerable detailed exhortations and commandments, the two which in the most general manner sum up the whole, are the duties of piety and holiness towards God, and of lovingkindness and justice towards man” [3], which is a reference to these two scriptures.

Interestingly, it is only Mark who records that Jesus began his reply in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one”, a comment which the scribe notes, “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him” (Mark 12:32). This connects to what Jesus was about to explain about the Son of David, that he, Jesus, the Son of David by physical descent, as hailed by the people when he entered Jerusalem, is involved in the oneness of God. Such an idea had already angered the Jews when Christ preached that he and the Father were working together, even on the Sabbath: “For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). Here in Mark Jesus is telling his audience that the Messiah is not a mere man. “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David?” After all, “David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?” (Mark 12:35, 37). This is a major statement because, in quoting Psalm 110, Jesus declares that he is David’s Lord, who sits at God’s right hand, is the Lord of all, and is “a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek” (Psalm 110:1-4). This Lord gave his followers an overarching new commandment, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35). Jesus is Lord, and, as Paul would go on to write, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). The scribe was “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:36) because he was standing next to David’s Lord. As Jesus taught from Psalm 110, the “large crowd listened to him with delight” (Mark 12:37). But to the scribes and Pharisees, this was only further evidence of his heretical views and of the threat to their position of religious power. They saw themselves as the defenders of the faith once delivered, and they had to act before things got further out of hand.

Storyline and Context

Mark records more details of this discussion concerning the greatest commandment than Matthew notes. The passage is not mentioned specifically in Luke although, when a similar reference is made to loving God and loving one’s neighbour, it leads to the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:26-37). To the Jewish religious leaders this was not some new topic of debate. Their scholars had mulled it over it for centuries, and most rabbis would have replied in a similar way to how Jesus did. Was it another setup to catch Jesus out in some way? Jesus had just “silenced the Sadducees” (Matthew 22:34), and the Pharisees huddled together to work out what to do next. Matthew writes that “one of them, a lawyer” asked Jesus the question whereas Mark seems to imply it was a passing scribe, who was impressed by Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees. Scribes and lawyers were interchangeable ideas. They were well-versed in the Law, and so would have known the answer to the question that was asked. They would copy the text of Scripture by hand, and they could remember chapter and verse of Old Testament passages. Was Jesus as familiar as they were with the key points of the Law, the Writings and the Prophets? When the scribe asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28), was it a test question? Some scholars wonder whether it was a genuine question posed in all innocence but, given the context of what happened before and afterwards, such a view is debatable. From “then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34). Jesus proceeded to show his knowledge of the Writings by asking the scribes and Pharisees a question of great doctrinal importance from Psalm 110. He was running them around in circles. Instead of their trapping him, he had trapped them. There was no room left for them to manoeuvre, no argument to which Jesus couldn’t respond. The only option remaining to them was to get the Roman authorities involved somehow.

Jesus went on the offensive. “While all the people were listening” (Luke 20:45), he attacked the practices of the scribes and Pharisees verbally and denigrated their lifestyles (Mark 14:38-40, expanded in Matthew 23), and then pointed to a poor widow as the epitome of genuine giving (Mark 12:41-44). This was provocative stuff, and, to make matters worse, as Jesus left the Temple precinct, he foretold the destruction of the Temple after some of the disciples had commented, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Mark 13:1-2). Even the Temple itself was not sacrosanct. It too would be attacked and left in ruins just as Jesus had attacked the legalism of the scribes and Pharisees and dismantled their traditions without a stone left unturned.

Peter, James, John and Andrew were unsettled by what they had seen and by what Jesus had just said, and, once they had arrived on the Mount of Olives, they asked him about the end of the world…

Scripture resources

  • Matthew 22:34-46
  • Matthew 23:1-36
  • Luke 10:26-37
  • Psalm 110

Other GCI resources:

Footnotes and References

  1. Karen Armstrong, A History of God (London, UK: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1993). 87.
  2. 2 Quoted in
  3. 3 Karen Armstrong, A History of God (London, UK, Mandarin: Paperbacks, 1993). 97.
  4. 4 Bear Grylls, Soul Fuel: a Daily Devotional (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019). 80.
  5. 5 Quoted in
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