In a familiar passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus gets asked what matters most. Embroiled in a cauldron of theological unrest over taxes and what happens after we die, Jesus impressed with agile wisdom. An Old Testament Law professor, overhearing, interjected his own question: “Of all the commandments, which is most important?” (Mark 12:28). There were over 600 commandments in Old Testament Law, the Torah, addressing practically every aspect of Jewish life. Earnest followers of God wanting to live morally had a hard time keeping track. Distill it down for us, will you?
Typically with law professors, Jesus presumed a trap. He’d answer their questions with questions or tell parables with punch lines to trap them. This time, however, at least here in Mark, Jesus perceived his inquirer to be a straight shooter. So he answered plainly: “The most important one . . . is [to] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (vv. 29–30). Orient your entire self in worship to the Lord and everything else falls into line.
This first command is known among Jews as the Shema, from the Hebrew word meaning listen. The Shema hangs on observant Jews’ doorposts, is recited twice every day, and is sought to be the last words spoken at one’s death. I knew a sweet Christian saint who sang the Shema three times a day with his wife. He said he sang it so often because he didn’t want to forget to do it, since, as we all know, loving God is one of those things that if not done deliberately never happens by itself.
Jesus proceeded to add a second commandment, which he equated with the first: “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (v. 31). What looks like a curveball, naming two commandments when the professor asked for one, is in fact a single imperative with three objects: Love. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love yourself.
True, Jesus didn’t explicitly command you to love yourself. But most of us love ourselves without being told, if not out of selfishness or vanity then certainly out of simple self-concern. This was Jesus’ point of comparison. Just as you make time for yourself, take interest in yourself, want what’s good for yourself, and make excuses for yourself—so you should take time for your neighbor, take interest in your neighbor, want what’s good for your neighbor, and cut your neighbor some slack.
The Old Testament Hebrew word for neighbor mostly means close kin or a relative. In New Testament Greek, the word could mean anybody nearby. My daughter and I hosted a block party for our neighbors last summer. She designed the invitations, and we walked them door to door to the 30 houses on our street. As most of my neighbors are actually strangers to us, I figured few if any would risk crossing the social borders of unfamiliarity and discomfort to make small talk and get bitten by mosquitos. We were prepared for nobody to show. We set up a few chairs, made a modest pasta salad, set out drinks, and waited. Twenty minutes or so after the gathering was scheduled to start, we decided we might as well eat. But then a family walked up with food to share and games to play. Then came a few more and a few more after them. We soon had a veritable party of strangers, all of whom were now neighbors and some who’ve become friends, one a family with a daughter the same age as mine. The girls now walk together to school every day.
A small step to be sure, especially when you consider that the kind of love Jesus calls us to includes radical behaviors like speaking the truth and turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, forgiving whatever wrong is committed against you, and laying down your life for a friend. We’re tempted to treat Jesus’ teachings as idealistic—a high bar we can never get over, so why even try? Better to confess your shortcomings, get your grace, and then get on with what you were going to do anyway. Jesus saves us from our sins. Except that salvation from sin is also for the sake of obedience. While we can do nothing to earn our salvation, we must do something to show we’ve received it.
“If you love me, keep my commands,” Jesus said (John 14:15). There is an imperative link between loving the Lord and loving your neighbor. There is power too. Christ’s love compels us—both our love for Christ and Christ’s love for us (2 Cor. 5:14). Call us crazy, but chances are, if you’ve ever put yourself out there for the sake of love in obedience to the gospel—loving others as yourself, caring for the poor, confronting injustice, forgiving your enemies, and all the rest—then you’ve likely experienced that power, that spiritual fire, that joy of obedience that energizes you to put yourself out there even more.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.