The scribe had a question.
Which law in Torah is the greatest?
With supposedly 613 separate laws in the Torah (365 of them negative), this had been a subject of debate for centuries. And many attempts had been made to distill these various laws down to an easier number.
Jesus puts a twist on his answer. The Law, he says, can be summed up in two things. First, he quotes Deuteronomy, a statement known as the Shema, a prayer that Jews were required to recite morning and night every day: Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He goes back to Leviticus and pulls this lesser-known verse out and sets it alongside the Shema: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. And he says this is the same as the first.
Jesus boils down the essence of the Law down to love.
Think about this as what he DOESN’T say the law is about.
He doesn’t say it’s about believing certain things- especially ones that Christians nowadays often argue about.He doesn’t say it’s about who will get into heaven or “personal salvation.”
He doesn’t say it’s about casting out folk you don’t like or don’t approve of.
He doesn’t say it’s about being RIGHT. He doesn’t say it’s about God being vengeful or punitive.
He says it is about LOVE. And further, he states very clearly that the best way to put your love for God into action is by loving those around you—your neighbors, whether you even like them or not, your political opponents– it doesn’t matter. He equates those two things as being the same.
Think about that! And then wonder at how revolutionary an idea this still is, 2000 years later! Love that isn’t about individual, personal relationships with Jesus so we can escape punishment, but love that is grounded in forming a community in which all are welcome—what the gospels call the Kingdom of God, or Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that everything in the Law and Prophets is meant to create a community in which justice and peace prevail—what we would call “heaven on earth.” The heart of God’s kingdom on earth and in our hearts, which was considered to be the seat of a person’s will, is LOVE. That is what makes Jesus’s message so compelling, then and now. Love doesn’t seek control but the flourishing of the beloved.
In our gospel this coming Sunday, the scribe’s question and Jesus’s answer brings the scribe into a position to be openhearted enough to consider the truth of Jesus’s message. Jesus’s answer is straightforward. The living out of that answer is too often anything but straightforward.
But love, even as an answer to a question we have trouble forming, is at least beautiful and wondrous. It’s a mystery we experience when we still our hearts and souls so that we can hear and know God’s presence in our lives. It’s the kind of love that sings out, wonderingly, about amazing grace—both given AND received.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.