The First Commandment – March 31, 2019, the Fourth Sunday in Lent

“The First Commandment”

Jeremiah 29:10-14, Mark 12:28-34
March 31, 2019

A lot has happened up till this point in Mark’s Gospel – including the Palm Sunday story, which we will revisit in a couple of weeks, of course.  But since last week’s passage, Jesus has entered Jerusalem.  He has “cleansed the Temple.”  He’s been questioned about his authority.  He’s been questioned about paying taxes to Caesar. Now he’s been questioned by the Sadducees about the resurrection.  (Which they didn’t believe in, by the way!)

Then, in the middle of his “argument” with the Sadducees, this scribe comes forward.  Now, this is probably a scribe of the Sadducees.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees each had their scribes.  This was probably a scribe of the Sadducees, because he asks Jesus what I think is a very “Sadduceic” question.  He asks him, “Teacher, which commandment is first of all?”

Now, as I’ve often said, the Pharisees tended to expand the commandments.  They liked to add all kinds of conditions and sub-commandments. They had developed an elaborate code of over 700 sub-commandments – “nuances” to the 10 Commandments.  They covered all kinds of different circumstances, and had rules to follow so you didn’t “break” any Commandments.

Well, the Sadducees, on the other hand, liked to boil down the commandments down, to figure out which were the most important.  And they often asked this question.  “Which is the greatest commandment?”  And that’s what this man asked.  If we had nothing else, just one commandment, one that would help us to keep the faith.  Which would it be?

So this man was either a scribe of the Sadducees, or he was a scribe of the Pharisees who was mocking the Sadducees’ beliefs.  Or he was trying to trap Jesus by asking him something he didn’t believe in anyway.  Well, I don’t think that’s the case, at all. Because I think it’s clear that this man was very sincere and thoughtful, as we will soon see.

So he comes up to Jesus in the middle of this “debate,” and he asks him, “which is the First commandment?” “Which is the most important?!”  And remember, the Sadducees Jesus was arguing with are hearing all of this next conversation.  Mark is careful to tell us that.  And he is also careful to tell us that this “exchange” between Jesus and this scribe is the one that ends all the questioning!

I want you to think about Jesus’ answer.  “Which is the first commandment?”  He answers him right out of the great “Hear, O Israel,” the great “Shema Yisrael” passage from Deuteronomy 6:14.  And note, this is not the Ten Commandments.  This is the place after that where God reminds the people to keep telling the story and to keep all the commandments.  This is what was said just as they were about to enter the Promised Land.

Here’s the passage from Deuteronomy.  “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord.  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart.  And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

That’s the passage that is represented in the little plaques or boxes you find on the doorframes of Jewish homes.  It comes right from Deuteronomy 6.  And that’s the passage Jesus quoted.  And the heart of that passage is the first commandment.  And not just the first numerically, but the first in importance! Love God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  Within that passage is the understanding that loving God is the first and greatest commandment.  And it’s the heart of all the other commandments.  Jesus was right on with this.  That’s what the “Shema” taught them.

This scribe knew that! He said, “Teacher, you have answered truly.”  And I’m betting there was no not of cynicism in his voice when he called Jesus “teacher.” This was a heartfelt exchange!  There’s no “testing” here.  There’s no attempt to make Jesus look bad.  This man makes a connection with Jesus!  He says, “ To love God 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.”  In Matthew’s account, Jesus adds, “On this hangs all the law and the prophets.”

What a way to end all of the confrontations between Jesus and the religious leaders.  “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” he said.  And after that, it says, “no one dared to ask him any questions.”  So according to Mark, the questions didn’t end because Jesus had masterfully answered a tough question.  They didn’t end when he had skillfully gotten out of the verbal trap they had laid, and so they gave up.  They ended here, when he spoke from the pure love for God as the first commandment. Beautiful!

So think about it. Does this one commandment “Love God,” and the extra one Jesus tacked on to it, “and your neighbor as yourself,” do they really cover all the others?  I’m not going to go down the list and ask that for each one.  But you can do that.  The 10 Commandments are found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 – right before this passage – the Shema passage.  But think about it.  Will you not lie if your love God with all your heart?  Will you not murder?  Will you not do all those other thing?

There are people who want to avoid actually following God, by keeping all the rules of God.  They would fall in line with the Pharisees. There are many who concentrate on “knowing all the right things, rather than knowing God.”  That’s that quote from John Eldridge, which I love.  And it’s true.

Just doing all the right things doesn’t cut it!  Jesus himself said there will be those who, in the end will say, “Lord, we did all kinds of great things for you.” And the Lord will say, “But I didn’t know you.” Actually, I’m glad for the Sadducees. I’m glad for their desire to boil all the commandments down to one.  I think if I had to choose, I’d make a much better Sadducee than a Pharisee.

Jesus certainly had a true connection with this one.  Because this man, this scribe, certainly focused on the “spirit of the Law,” rather than the “letter of the Law.”  That’s what Jesus had against the Pharisees.  They had it the other way around.  They focused on the letter of the Law, forsaking the spirit of the Law,

So, it’s Lent.  This is the time to look inside ourselves.  And this is a good question to ask.  How do we follow Jesus?  Do we do so by following rules and commandments?  Or do we do so first and foremost by loving God with all of our heart, our soul, and our strength; and our neighbor as ourselves?

That’s the first Commandment!  That’s the most important!  And that will cause uz to love our neighbors – and all the other things.  That Commandment is the doorway into a meaningful relationship with God, and the fulfilling, abundant life he wants for all of us!


Eternal God, we love you, because you first loved us.  Help us to realize our love for you, and help us truly to love our neighbors as ourselves. And may our neighbors know we are Christians by the way we love each other.  This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.