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, ...1
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