Today’s Scripture reading (Mark 12.13–44) is long. So, instead of trying to write about all of it, I want to write about only part of it. But that part is important, perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the Bible. Let’s take a closer look at verses 28–34.
Beginning at verse 28, a teacher of the law engages in a conversation with Jesus, asking him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” The teachers of the law—together with the Pharisees, Sadducees, chief priests, and elders—have taken quite a shellacking at Jesus’ hands throughout Mark’s Gospel. But this particular teacher seems different. While certain Pharisees asked Jesus questions “to catch [Jesus] in his words” (verse 13), this teacher asked Jesus a question because he saw that Jesus provided “a good answer” (verse 28). This should remind us, of course, not to judge a person by the label he wears; some teachers of the law were honest spiritual seekers.
The teacher’s question prompts another question: Is it possible to arrange the commandments in a hierarchy of values? According to Jewish scholars, there are 611 commandments in the Law of Moses. (Another count finds 613.) The commandments cover the gamut, ranging from laws about morality to laws about sacrifices to laws about food and hygiene to laws about political organization. Are they all equally authoritative? What happens if two conflict?
Now you may be under the impression that the laws cannot conflict. But that does not seem quite right. If your wife is pregnant and you need to get her to the hospital at 3.00 a.m., you will probably speed, run a few stoplights and stop signs, and in general take the traffic laws with a grain of salt. And if a cop pulls you over, once he realizes the gravity of the situation, he probably won’t give you a ticket. Why? Because the moral duty to rush your wife to the hospital for a safe delivery is more important than obeying traffic laws when the streets are virtually deserted. The same kind of reasoning applies to the laws of Scripture. Some are more important than others.
For Jesus, the most important commandments revolved around loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as yourself. “There is no commandment greater than these,” he says (verse 31). In Matthew’s parallel account, he said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22.40). We often pit law and love in an antagonistic relationship, but in the bible, they are complementary. If you love God and neighbor, you will obey the law. Indeed, as Paul put it, “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13.10).
Jesus’ answer impressed the teacher, who added, “To love…is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices” (verse 33). In other words, the moral elements of the law are more important than the ceremonial elements, which cover sacrifice and the like. Why? Because what God really wants is inward spiritual change, not outward religious show. We, like the teacher, will be near the kingdom of God when we put this insight into practice in our own lives.