Uniform 05.25.2014: Boiling It Down

Leviticus 19:18; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-34

I’ve been told that the entire Christian faith boils down to two instructions: “Love God, and love people.” That sounds so simple—too simple. And I’m not the first person to think that. Over the hundreds of years in which the Old Testament events took place, followers of the one true God struggled to figure out exactly what they needed to do to honor the Lord. Sure, God gave Moses a set of ten, neatly packaged commandments (see Exodus 20). But once the people got the list, they became entirely consumed with trying to follow each one to the letter. We have the same trouble today.

1–2. “Don’t have any other gods before God. Don’t worship idols.” Okay. Does that mean we can have other gods, but they just need to come after the Lord? What about the loyalty I feel to my job or my family? How about the possessions I own? And what about those folks down the street who actually have a statue that they pray to? How do I respect their religion while upholding my own?

3. “Don’t misuse God’s name.” Got it. Don’t say, “Oh my God!” But what else does this mean? What about when I praise God’s name for sparing me from cancer right in front of my friend, who underwent a double mastectomy last year? What about the preacher who says that God wants me to send lots of money to his personal cause? Or the one who said the hurricane was God’s judgment on gay people?

4. “Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” Oh, I can do that. I’m at church every single Sunday. But my mind is all over the place during worship. And what about all the times when, on the way home, I drag the kids to the grocery store to fulfill the list I made during the sermon? What about those people who struggle to make a living on the Sabbath day? Where’s their rest? Where’s the holiness for them?

It goes on and on, down the list. Each commandment, which seems so simple at first, expands into a grand collection of dos and don’ts and maybes and I’m not sures. The early followers of God took that simple list and added so many nuances and caveats that God’s commands became impossible to keep. Centuries later, Jesus came along, and at first it seemed that he was going to make following God even more complicated. “You have heard it said that you shouldn’t commit adultery,” he told his followers. “But listen here—if you even look at someone with lust in your heart, you’ve already had an affair with them!” (Mt 5:27-28). He elaborated like this on many of their common laws, always with an uncomfortable focus on the content of a person’s heart.

And then, during the last week of Jesus’ life, when he could look ahead and see the great darkness of pain and suffering he was about to endure, a scribe asked him to sum up the law. “What’s the greatest commandment, Jesus?” Jesus gave a simple reply: “Love God, and love people” (Mk 12:28-34). Of all the many rules and regulations that religious people had piled onto the law over the years, Jesus handpicked two of them from the Old Testament (Lev 19:18; Deut 6:4-9). When you think about it, they really do cover it all. If you love God completely, you will do everything in your power to honor God. And if you truly honor God, you will do everything in your power to care for the people God made. What makes Jesus’ words even more revolutionary is that he said them when he knew the people would soon kill him and, worse, that God would let them do it.

“Love God, and love people.” Yes, it seems too simple. But is it, really? How well are we doing with these two parts of the single greatest commandment in all of Scripture?


1. Do you ever feel like the Christian faith is a huge set of instructions you have to follow? If not, do you think others perceive the faith in this way? Why?
2. What is hard about having a list of instructions to follow? What is easy about it?
3. How do you feel about Jesus’ answer to the scribe who asked for the “greatest commandment”? Do you think it sufficiently covers what it means to live like Christ?
4. Does the command to love God and love people seem too simple? Why? In practice, is it really simple? How do you struggle to follow it?
5. It seems that Jesus’ response to the scribe communicates God’s true character more fully than the Ten Commandments do, but unbelievers often claim that Christians are caught up in rules and regulations. How can we live out loving God and loving people in ways that show others who God really is?

Reference Shelf

The contest of wit and wisdom between Jesus and representatives of the various groups and leaders of the people reaches its climax with the question posed by one of the scribes. In contrast to the previous questions, however, the scribe’s question is not overtly hostile. Mark explains that he is motivated by having heard Jesus’ debates with the others. The verb “to debate” (translated “answered” them in the NRSV) occurs only in Mark (1:27; 8:11; 9:10, 14, 16; 12:28) and in Luke-Acts in the New Testament.

The scribe’s question is typical of issues debated by the scribes and teachers of the law. Because they counted 613 commands in the Torah, they often looked for ways to summarize the essence of the Torah. When a Gentile challenged Hillel, saying that he would become a proselyte if Hillel could teach him the whole Law while he stood on one foot, Hillel replied, “What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Law, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it” (b. Shabbath 31a). Similarly, the oral tradition of the Pharisees records that Simeon the Just used to say, “By three things is the world sustained: by the Law, by the [Temple-]service, and by deeds of lovingkindness” (m. Aboth 1.2).

The scribe asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (v. 28). The use of “first” meaning “chief ” or “preeminent” occurs elsewhere in Mark: the “first” men of Galilee (6:21) and the “first” among the disciples (9:35; 10:31, 44). Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 in a form that is close to the Septuagint (and the Masoretic Text) but that adds a fourth qualifier, “and with all your mind,” and changes the word for “strength” from dynameøs to ischyos. When the scribe repeats the command, he omits two of the qualifiers (soul and mind) and adds another (understanding), thereby returning to the form of three qualifiers as found in the biblical text. “Understanding” may also be a combination of “soul” and “mind.” Matthew and Luke both omit Deuteronomy 6:4 and move directly to 6:5. Matthew omits the fourth qualifier (strength; Matt 22:37) and Luke reverses the last two qualifiers, reading “strength” then “mind.” The form of the text was therefore still fluid even though it was the beginning of the Shema (Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41), which was recited twice each day by the faithful. From these variations in the synoptic texts Joachim Jeremias concluded that “the Greek Shema was not a regularly recited liturgical text for any of the three synoptic evangelists.”

The Shema, known by the first word of the Hebrew text of Deuteronomy 6:4, is the foundational confession of ancient Israel, a call for complete and exclusive devotion to Yahweh. The command to “hear” is not passive but active. To “hear” means to give heed to and obey. The affirmation that follows may emphasize either the oneness of Yahweh or the exclusivity of Yahweh’s claim on Israel’s devotion. God demands our complete devotion; we are to serve no other God. Therefore, the affirmation of God’s exclusive right to worship is followed by the command to love God with all one’s being. William Lane comments: “The love which determines the whole disposition of one’s life and places one’s whole personality in the service of God reflects a commitment to God which springs from divine sonship.” For ancient anthropology the heart was the center of the will and volition, the center of one’s inner life, the epitome of the person. When one loves God with one’s whole heart, there can be no hypocrisy. Like “heart,” “soul” denoted the whole person (see commentary on 8:35). Behind the New Testament usage of psyche lies the Hebrew understanding of the human being as a living, breathing nephesh. James castigates the “double-minded” (dipsychos; Jas 1:8; 4:8) by which he means those whose loyalties are divided, or whose commitments vacillate. When one loves God with one’s whole soul or life (psyche), one’s ultimate allegiance is clear and uncompromised. “Mind” or “understanding” (dianoia) denoted one’s moral consciousness. Paul characterizes the unbelieving Gentiles as “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God” (Eph 4:18). When one loves God with one’s whole mind, therefore, there can be no confusion about what is right before God. “Strength” (ischys) denotes all human energy and vitality. Ephesians 6:10 admonishes, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” Birger Gerhardsson extends the meaning of “strength” to encompass “external resources, power, mammon”—all of one’s possessions, property, and resources. When one loves God with one’s whole strength, one neither squanders life on lesser pursuits nor allows material goods to become false gods. The call to love God therefore claims all that defines our lives.

To this greatest commandment Jesus adds a second: Leviticus 19:18, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Mark 12:31 reproduces the Septuagint text of this command verbatim. Originally, “neighbor” meant one’s fellow Israelite, but by the first century the question of who should be counted as a neighbor was in debate, and in Luke Jesus responds to the question with the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37; cf. Matt 5:43; Rom 13:9-10; Gal 5:14; Jas 2:8). The elder of 1 John asks pointed questions about the love command: how can God’s love abide in one who sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help (3:17), and how can one love God, whom he has not seen, if he does not love a brother or sister, whom he has seen? (4:20). The two commands appear already to have been joined (T. Iss. 5:2, “Love the Lord and your neighbor”; see also 7:6, where Issachar says he has loved God and “every human being,” and T. Dan 5:3). Nevertheless, there is no earlier text in which Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18 are specifically linked.

Mark’s interest is neither in the definition of “neighbor” nor in the nature of the love that is commanded but in the inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor. The love command does not occur outside this passage in Mark, and the noun agape does not appear in this Gospel. Instead, Mark insists that true belief in God is not expressed through participation in the cultic practices (purity, feasts, or sacrifices) but in keeping the moral law, that is, by loving one’s fellow human being.


R. Alan Culpepper, Mark, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 295-300.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum since 2001. She is a member of West Highland Baptist Church in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading and writing fiction, spending time with her husband and two daughters, and watching British television shows. Her goal for 2014 is to learn to play the piano.


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