The Essential Commandment
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord 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 mind and with all your strength.’The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
— Mark 12:28–34 (NIV)
There are some parts of the world where missionaries must take security seriously. Due to the political and/or religious culture, preaching the gospel and leading people to Christ is illegal and dangerous. In some cases, there are militant groups that target westerners for kidnapping, robbery, or worse. Missionaries have an immediate evacuation plan in place carefully designed to execute at a moment’s notice. They have routes to schools pre-planned and exit options out of town mapped-out. For communication, someone on the missions team is assigned a satellite phone with a direct connection to their country’s embassy in their host country’s capital. They have a “go bag” packed containing absolute essentials only.
“All right here.”
You grab the essentials and go. You don’t take the second car. The TV, furniture, beds, books, office equipment, tools, collections of music and videos, as expensive as all that stuff is, they are not essential. You leave those things for looters. The family will survive without them.
It’s not about personal ethics. It’s about survival and preserving what matters most.
This is the kind of question that the scribe, the expert in Jewish law, was asking Jesus.
What are the essentials needed for survival?
Jesus answered with a version of what is known as the Shema, a central Jewish prayer (“Shema” means “listen,” as in: “Listen, O, Israel…”). Devout Jews from Jesus day all the way up to present day prayed this prayer. What Jesus was doing is not “a new religion.” All His activity and teaching were a fulfillment of this prayer that Jewish people have prayed daily since the time they were taught by Moses.
The difference is that Jesus didn’t want people to mouth these words in an empty religious way. That’s how pagans pray to gods who don’t hear. Jesus said that this is a commandment that takes heart, intelligence, and strength. This prayer is not just words. It’s worship. It’s a the way to live life.
Why worship God with ALL your heart, ALL your intelligence, and ALL your strength? If it is true that we are created in the image of God, if we are to reflect His image into the world around us, then we will find our fullest meaning and understanding of ourselves through worship of the One who fashioned us. This doesn’t work if our hearts, minds, and strength are in neutral or partially engaged. We can’t do it halfway. There are too many distractions between halfway to God and all the way to God. Most people are halfway to God. It takes heart, strength, and intelligence to be all in.
“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” says Jesus.
Rules don’t work. Relationships do. We can’t take rules to heaven with us. We can only take people. When we develop our relationship with God and with other people, we go way beyond rule keeping. Strict rule-keepers aren’t known for having friends. But friend-makers always have friends.
Get close to God through worship, and get close to people by loving them as you love yourself.
Where this theological conversation goes next is where it gets radical, controversial, and deep all at the same time. When the scribe agrees with what Jesus states and then says: “[these are] much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices,” he is essentially stating that this whole temple worship system of sacrifices is non-essential to the worship of God (maybe the original argument this scribe heard when this scene opens was about the temple cleansing incident that was still very fresh in public memory in this Holy Week setting).
Jesus affirms the scribe’s statement as wise and adds, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
The key elements of this conversation are the essence of the charges Jesus was brought up on at the end of His final week of ministry when He was sentenced to death. “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58). The temple system had become something other than true worship of God. It had become a political, religious, and economic machine whose days were numbered (and those numbers were small). For that system to continue, religious leaders concluded, Jesus and everything He stands for must be destroyed.
Think about that for a minute. Jesus distilled everything He was doing down to these two things:
✔ Love God.
✔ Love people.
This is what missionaries need in their “go bag.”
Isn’t where your heart was when you heard the call to go into the mission field? “Love God, love people, that’s what God is calling me to…” That’s what’s I wrote in my journal when I knew I was called to the field. That was the essence of the call, my motivation. That is what I needed to revisit when I found myself discouraged, questioning, or confused about my call. It doesn’t take a religious, political, or economic framework to support these and that’s why the message is so radical. Simple. Essential.