The Great Commandment. 12:28-34

While debating with the religious authorities in the temple precincts, a scribe, impressed by Jesus' answers, asks him a question concerning the greatest of all the commandments. The religious teacher is seemingly encouraged by Jesus' answer, yet, it is likely that this righteous man thought his righteousness had already secured his position in the kingdom, so being told he was "not far from" it, is by no means good news.

The passage

v28. Religious Judaism in the first century had identified 613 individual commandments of the Law. Much time was spent grading them according to importance, and this because keeping them secured a place in the kingdom.

v29. Instead of giving his number one law, Jesus gives a summary of the whole law. This summary is based on Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. It was a commonly used summary at this time, eg. "Love the Lord and the neighbor", Testament of Issachar. Jesus begins by quoting the Shema' - obedience rests on a knowledge of the unique character of God and of his covenantal love toward Israel.

v30. God demands of his people a total devotion and commitment of their life to Him.

v31. As a consequence, God demands a total commitment of life to those created in His image. As we love ourselves, so we must love our neighbor. Although Leviticus 19:18 confined love to "the sons of your own people", Jesus had already widened the ideal of love to include everyone. Only the hardness of the human heart limits love.

v32. The teacher affirms Jesus' use of the Shema. In line with Exodus 20:7 he does not use the divine name. He adds The phrase "and there is no other beside him", Deuteronomy 4:35.

v33. The teacher affirms Jesus' summary of the Law, making the point that the love of God and neighbor is far superior to cultic sacrifices, specifically whole burnt offerings. Religious Judaism would often rate cultic sacrifice above care toward a neighbor, even though the teaching of the Old Testament on this matter was well understood, cf. 1Sam.15:22, Hos.6:6. The ethical superiority of benevolence over cult was not a radical idea.

v34. The teacher has certainly answered intelligently, but he hasn't quite grasped the uncompromised perfection demanded of God's law. Jesus' response, at best, is ambiguous and serves to prompt self-examination. If the teacher had truly understood the substance of the Law, then he is bound to face the reality of his own failure to obey it, and thus, his place outside the kingdom. Yet, there is hope for him. If he properly understands his state of loss then indeed he is "not far from the kingdom", for a recognition of sin may well prompt repentance. The trouble with testing Jesus is that the questions can come back and bite you. Best not to "ask him any more questions", and that's what the teachers of the law did.

The Two Great Commandments

In the Anglican (Episcopalian) tradition, the Ten Commandments are read to the congregation in the opening section of the Holy Communion. In a shortened service, clergy often replace the Ten Commandments with a version of the two great commands.

In Prayer Book revision this practice was formalized. The Australian Prayer Book of 1978 included the alternative "Our Lord Jesus Christ said: You shall love the Lord you God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and with all your strength. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets", Matt.22:37-40, Mk.12:30-31.

The response of the people, composed by Archbishop Cranmer for the 1552 Prayer Book, was "Lord, have mercy on us: and write your law in our hearts by your Holy Spirit." Often, congregations will just use the response, "Lord have mercy," In Second Order services, the Confession and Absolution can be said following the Two Great Commandments.

So then, what is the point of all this liturgical juggling? The reformers well understood the purpose of the Law. Although the Law does serve as a guide to right living, it primarily serves to expose sin. Jesus used the Law to expose sin, and it was given this same function in the Anglican service of Holy Communion by the reformers. God's people gather, they hear the law, and are again reminded of their state of loss. Yet, they have gathered before a merciful and loving God, who in Jesus Christ has wiped away their sin. As confession moves to absolution, the congregation stands and joins in praise to a gracious God.

When we honestly face the absolute nature of God's Law we are "not far from the kingdom."


1. In what sense was the scribe not far from the kingdom?

2. What did the scribe need to do to enter the kingdom?