Religious, but Not Righteous

28 And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 33 And to love him 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.” 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. Mark 12:28-34 ESV

The Sadducees faired no better than the Pharisees and Herodians. Jesus had handled their carefully crafted question with ease, revealing that their misunderstanding of the doctrine of the resurrection was based on their ignorance of the Scriptures. These men were supposed to be the brightest and the best that Israel had to offer. They were considered the spiritual rock stars of their day. The people revered them for their knowledge, power, and influence. Yet, Jesus had exposed them as pretenders who were ignorant of God’s Word and unfamiliar with His power.

“Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? – Mark 12:24 ESV

The Jewish high council had two strikes against them, but they were far from ready to concede defeat. Matthew records that they quickly assembled a third team made up of Pharisees, one of whom was a scribe, an expert in the Mosaic law.

But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees with his reply, they met together to question him again. One of them, an expert in religious law, tried to trap him with this question: “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” – Matthew 22:34-36 NLT

According to the Rabbis, the Mosaic Law contained 613 commands, 365 positive and 248 negative. It was a common practice among Israel’s religious scholars to categorize these laws according to their weight, classifying them as either heavy or light. Some laws were considered more important than others, and these men enjoyed debating which of the 613 laws was the most important.

By posing this question to Jesus, the scribe was attempting to put Him on the spot by forcing Him to reveal what He considered to be the greatest of all the laws of God. But without a moment’s hesitation, Jesus responded by quoting from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

This was a very well-known passage among the Jews because they were expected to recite it two times a day. It was known as the Shema, which is the Hebrew word for “Hear,” the first word in the verse.

This passage was to be a reminder of the covenant relationship between Yahweh and His chosen people. He was to be their only God and they were expected to give Him their full and unwavering allegiance. Every aspect of their lives was to reflect their faithful commitment to Him. It’s fair to assume that this scribe considered himself to be in full compliance with this command. And Jesus seems to know that the scribe and the rest of the Pharisees who sent him, all shared an overinflated sense of their own adherence to this particular law. So, He added a second part to His answer. This time, Jesus quoted from another part from the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses that they so greatly revered.

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 19:18 ESV

Not only were they to love God, but they were to show love to their neighbor as well. And this second part of Jesus’ answer was intended to expose a flaw in the thinking of these self-righteous religious leaders. They could easily proclaim their love for God, but it was far more difficult to prove their love for others. And Luke records an earlier encounter Jesus had with another scribe. This man had come to Jesus wanting to know what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus had responded to his question by asking him what the Mosaic law said. And the man had responded by quoting Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” – Luke 10:27 ESV

Jesus commended the man for his answer, telling him to “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28 ESV). But this led the man to seek clarification. He wanted to know what the law meant by “neighbor.” In essence, he was asking Jesus to narrow the definition so that it made compliance to the law feasible and doable. But Jesus had answered him with the parable of the Good Samaritan. In that parable Jesus described a man who had been attacked by thieves and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both encountered the man lying on the side of the road, but chose to ignore his plight. But when a Samaritan saw the man, he stopped and administered aid, even covering the cost of his convalescence at a nearby inn. And when Jesus asked the scribe which of these three men “proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” (Luke 10:36 ESV), the scribe answered, “The one who showed him mercy” (Luke 10:37 ESV). And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37 ESV).

The Leviticus 19 passage required that the Jews love their neighbor in the same way they loved themselves. And God had provided no room for them to determine who their neighbor might be. This wasn’t about loving the lovely or showing affection to those who loved you in return. Jesus had earlier told His disciples, “Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much!” (Luke 6:32-33 NLT).

And the apostle John would later expand on this idea, declaring that the failure to love others was evidence of a lack of love for God.

If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. – 1 John 4:20 ESV

So, when Jesus combined these two commandments together, He was indicating that it was impossible to love God without expressing selfless love for others. That is why He told the scribe, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31 ESV). These two laws went hand-in-hand. They were inseparable. But the scribes and Pharisees were guilty of expressing their deep love and affection for God while treating their “neighbors” as second-class citizens. They  looked down on the lower classes, viewing them as ignorant and incapable of living up to God’s holy standards as revealed his His law. These very same men had regularly attacked Jesus for associating with tax collectors and prostitutes. They viewed His love for these people as sin. And yet, Jesus was telling them that a failure to love the unlovely was evidence of a hatred for God.

The answer Jesus gave left the scribe with no other choice than to agree with Him.

“Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” – Mark 12:32-33 NLT

But Jesus sensed that the man was beginning to see the light. He had heard what Jesus said and it had made sense to him. So, Jesus responded, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34 NLT). Jesus was commending the scribe for his willingness to listen and learn. He had shown an openness to the truth, which was a critical first step in coming to an understanding of who Jesus was and what He had come to offer.

For the third time, the religious leaders had swung and missed. They had failed to trap Jesus with their cleverly worded questions. Instead, He had exposed them for their hypocrisy. By using the Scriptures against them, Jesus had revealed their ignorance of God’s Word which explained their inability to comprehend God’s power. The Son of God stood in their midst, but they failed to recognize Him. The Old Testament Scriptures they studied so diligently had predicted the Messiah’s coming, but because of their hardness of heart, their eyes were blind to His presence among them. The Kingdom of Heaven was near, but they couldn’t see it or enter into it.

With their latest setback, the religious leaders called off their attack. They no longer posed any more questions to Jesus. But their hatred for Him did not dissipate, so they were forced to come up with another strategy to plot His demise.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

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The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson