A scribe came to Jesus and asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28). It sounds like a fair question. First-century Jews counted 613 regulations in the Law, 248 commands, and 365 prohibitions. They ranged from the utterly foundational (“You shall have no other gods before me.” Ex. 20:3) to the apparently peripheral (“Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Ex. 23:19). All of God’s laws are equal, but surely some are more equal than others.
Jesus’ response is fascinating. In a sense, he accepts the premise of the question and gives a straight answer: “The most important one,” he says, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’” (Mark 12:29–30). So there is a “most important” commandment: Love the Lord.
But in another sense, his response challenges the premise, as his responses (especially in this section of the Gospels) so often do. Rather than stopping after his apparently straight answer, Jesus continues: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these” (12:31). But notice: That wasn’t what the scribe had asked. He wanted the commandments boiled down to one; Jesus refused to give him fewer than two. In Matthew’s version, he even says that the second commandment is “like” the first, adding that “[a]ll the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments” (22:39–40). The most important commandment, then, is twofold: Love the Lord, and love your neighbor. If you keep the first without keeping the second, then you’re not really keeping the first.
It’s easy to think of contemporary equivalents. Which is more important for Christians: preaching the gospel or pursuing justice? What is the primary purpose of the church: making disciples or serving the poor? We frame questions this way because we want clarity. We want to ensure that, among everything Jesus taught us, we don’t miss out on what he most wanted.
But there is always a risk of reductionism. If X is more important than Y, then we’ll tend to treat Y as something to get around to sooner or later, once X is complete. Jesus challenges the way we frame the question, giving us two commandments for the price of one. Our focus, he says, must be thoroughly divine and no less thoroughly humanitarian.
The Gospels are filled with examples. Many of the controversies between Jesus and his opponents—debates about healing on the Sabbath, hypocrisy, table fellowship, the inclusion of sinners, and so on—reflect this tension. People are acting a certain way to honor God, but in doing so they are dishonoring their neighbors, which means they are not actually honoring God. Jesus is emphatic in his challenge: “[G]o and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matt. 9:13). You can’t love God without loving the one made in his image.
In the three Gospels where the greatest commandment question appears, two stories illustrating how love for God and love for neighbor work together in practice immediately follow. That’s probably no coincidence. In Matthew 22 and Mark 12, Jesus transitions to a question about the Messiah’s lordship (love of God) and then a rebuke of merciless, hypocritical leaders (love of neighbor). In Luke 10, the conversation leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan (love of neighbor) and then the exchange with Martha and Mary, in which Mary is commended for choosing “what is better” (love of God). The Gospels don’t just tell us that these two loves belong together. Like the Ten Commandments, they reveal what it means to make each of them supreme in our lives.
In the final analysis, loving God comes first, loving our neighbor second. Each Gospel maintains this order, both in theory and in practice. Yet it is equally clear that we cannot keep the first command without keeping the second—just as we cannot adequately preach the gospel without pursuing justice or make disciples without caring for the poor. When we ask for one commandment, Jesus gives us two. May we rightly prioritize both, the better to confirm Jesus’ next sentence: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London and author of Spirit and Sacrament (Zondervan). Follow him on Twitter @AJWTheology.
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