November 4, 2018
Asking Jesus to name the greatest commandment is a trick question, for there were 613 laws (which included both the “written” laws and the “oral” laws). Since this is the case, any one commandment that Jesus might pick could lead to a debate about what others might see as more important. However, Jesus surprises his questioners by combining a commandment from the Book of Deuteronomy and another from the Book of Leviticus in an answer that impresses his hearers.
What is interesting in the exchange is what the scribe adds when he restates Jesus’ answer: That loving God and neighbor “is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The Old Testament prophets had repeated God’s message to the people repeatedly:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6)
“I hate, I despise your feasts. I take no pleasure in your solemnities. Even though you bring me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them…Rather let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
So, this scribe, knowing the Jewish Scriptures, recognizes that Jesus’ answer stands within a long line of prophets who spoke a similar message. In turn, Jesus recognizes the wisdom of the scribe’s words and responds: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
This gospel reminds us that church-like activities do not replace loving God and our neighbor. They should help us to love God and our neighbor but they are not a substitute for this.