Lesson Focus: We are to love God with all we are. We are to love ourselves well and appropriately so that we might love others in the same way.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this, lesson students should:
Be encouraged to love God with all that we are.
Be encouraged to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Understand that we love and care for ourselves so that we might love and care for others.
Catch up on the Story When we last saw Jesus and his companions, they were on their way into Jerusalem. This will be the last time that Jesus travels to Israel’s capital before his crucifixion. All along the journey toward Jerusalem, Jesus has tried to prepare his friends for what he will soon experience. The disciples are a little slow, with Peter going so far as to rebuke Jesus for his talk of death.
Now, however, Jesus and his followers have entered Jerusalem to some significant fanfare. Even though the crowds love him when he first enters the city, Jesus’ time in Jerusalem will not be easy. The Temple will prove to be a place of conflict and angst. On more than one occasion, members of the Jewish religious leadership will question Jesus in an attempt to entrap him. The antagonism will be fierce, but Jesus remains strong, constantly offering up wise responses.
In this week’s story, Mark tells us one more story of Jesus being questioned. The questioner is still one of the Jewish religious leaders, but as we will see, he comes with a genuine sense of curiosity and likely a predisposition to like Jesus.
The First Commandment In the previous few chapters, Jesus has remained the center around which the narrative has circled. Repeatedly, Jesus is confronted by a questioner who generally wishes to catch Jesus in saying something heretical. In this week’s passage, Jesus is once more approached and asked a question. Mark tells us that the current questioner is a scribe, a man concerned with Jewish faith and matters of Law. Unlike those who have previously questioned Jesus, this scribe seems to be asking a genuine question aimed at discerning Jesus’ take on the Jewish faith.
It was not uncommon for rabbi’s of the day to be asked to summarize their understanding of the Jewish Law. In this way, the essential “thrust and flavor of a rabbi’s mind and teaching” would be ascertained.. The scribe’s question, “Which commandment is the first of all?” is not odd as well, and questions like this one were not first asked of Jesus. Famously, when the rabbi Hillel was asked by a Gentile to summarize the entire Law while the man stood on only one foot, Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to others, the rest is commentary.”
As the quote from the rabbi Hillel attests, the general gist of Jesus’ answer is not unique either. When we look a bit closer, however, we will find some rich insights into precisely what Jesus believes is essential for those who claim to follow him.
The First Commandment The question the scribe puts to Jesus only asks for one commandment, but Jesus responds with two. “The first is, ‘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 mind, and with all your strength.’
In giving his answer, Jesus will quote from relevant sections of the Pentateuch. Not surprisingly, Jesus goes straight to Deuteronomy 6:4-5. It appears only in Mark’s gospel that Jesus quotes the opening to what is known as the Shema. The Shema occupies an important place in Jewish Law as it is itself a summary of the Law God gave to Israel after the exodus.
It may seem mere formality that Jesus quotes the opening lines and doesn’t jump right into the actual command to love God, but it is not. Aside from being a command to listen up, the first line is a confession of Israel’s understanding of God’s nature. The confession is that Israel’s God, Yahweh, is the only and true God. There is only one God, and Yahweh is his name. He is above all and over all. This contrasts with the nations that surrounded Israel, which often had a pantheon of gods who constantly fought for supremacy.
Using the first line of the Shema confessing God’s oneness, Jesus establishes himself as fully orthodox, even as he claims to be God. Jesus understands and wants us to know that he is God and that God’s unity remains.
Jesus slightly modifies Israel’s greatest command. The original form of the command in Deuteronomy 6:5 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your souls, and with all your might.” In addition to our hearts, souls, and might (strength as he puts it), we are also to love God with our minds. No part of our being is left behind while we seek to worship and love God.
There’s a nasty strain within the Protestant church in America that disdains good education and well thought out theological and biblical study. We have been created with a tremendous ability to think and to reason. Our minds are gifts from God and should be put to good use in our quest to love God fully. Having faith doesn’t mean you have to leave your brain behind.
The Second Commandment Without skipping a beat, Jesus launches into what he believes is the second greatest commandment, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” While the first commandment comes from Deuteronomy, this second commandment comes from everyone’s favorite Old Testament book, Leviticus. Specifically, the quotation comes from Leviticus 19:18.
The idea of loving yourself can be a bit tricky. Somewhere along the line growing up, I picked up the notion that if I was happy and content, then I was not truly following God. Put differently, I understood that if you weren’t suffering, you weren’t following Jesus correctly. To a certain degree, I know where this comes from. The way of Jesus, the way of the cross, does often lead to self-sacrifice and suffering.
I don’t think I’m the only one of my generation to understand the Christian life this way. More than once, I’ve heard people echo similar sentiments. But here we have Jesus saying that we are to love others as we love ourselves. This implies that we love ourselves. Or, at the very least, care for our well-being.
“Self-care” has entered our vocabulary. Self-care is the idea that we must take time to care for our basic needs. Of course, that means things like good nutrition, exercise, clothing, and shelter. It also means developing a healthy work/life balance, setting appropriate boundaries in relationships, or being free to remove yourself from a toxic or harmful environment. For some, good self-care means taking a nap, reading a book, or taking a stroll in the woods.
In short, good self-care is doing those things that will help us grow and develop into the mature and flourishing people God hopes we will become. I think the intent of self-care, as it is popularly known, is good and aligns with Jesus understanding that we must love ourselves. We love and care for ourselves so that we might love and care for others.
At the same time, however, we can do a little too much self-care. If we are not careful, self-care can become self-absorption and selfishness. When we love ourselves too much, we fail to love others, and when we fail to love others, we fail to love God.
Here it is important to understand Jesus’ “as” correctly. As can be misunderstood to mean “as much as” instead of “in the same way that.” The difference is subtle but important. So, in the same way that we love ourselves so that we might become all that God hopes and dreams we can become, we should love our neighbor. In his sermon, The Way to the Kingdom, John Wesley summarizes this commandment,
“And the second commandment is like unto this; the Second great branch of Christian righteousness is closely and inseparably connected therewith; even, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” Thou shalt love,—Thou shalt embrace with the most tender good-will, the most earnest and cordial affection, the most inflamed desires of preventing or removing all evil, and of procuring for him every possible good,—Thy neighbour;—that is, not only thy friend, thy kinsman, or thy acquaintance; not only the virtuous, the friendly, him that loves thee, that prevents or returns thy kindness; but every child of man, every human creature, every soul which God hath made; not excepting him whom thou never hast seen in the flesh, whom thou knowest not, either by face or name; not excepting him whom thou knowest to be evil and unthankful, him that still despitefully uses and persecutes thee: Him thou shalt love as thyself; with the same invariable thirst after his happiness in every kind; the same unwearied care to screen him from whatever might grieve or hurt either his soul or body.”
Wesley not only helps us see how we should love our neighbor, but who our neighbor is, too.
The Scribe’s Response While every other question that has been put to Jesus results in a conflict, this question concludes differently. By way of response, the scribe affirms all that Jesus has said.
The scribe understands Jesus’ comments about the unity of God and our duty to love God and our neighbor, and he adds his own bit of commentary on Jesus’ summary of the Law, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
While this response may seem remarkable coming from the mouth of a man whose career and identity was tied to sacrificial regulations, he’s only echoing many of Israel’s prophets who called for God’s people to love God by caring for the vulnerable around them. On more than one occasion, the prophets bear witness that God requires obedience rather than sacrifice.
Mark tells us that Jesus thinks the man has answered wisely, saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” By this, Jesus doesn’t mean spatially close, but that the scribe has grasped the essential bits of God’s kingdom, a feat that Jesus’ disciples have yet to accomplish.
So What? How can we summarize what God wants us to do? Simply by saying that we should try to love God with all that we have and love our neighbors, all of our neighbors, in the same way that we love ourselves.
We love God by offering ourselves in worship to God, by seeking to commune with God. We love God by studying the scriptures so that we might more fully know the story of God’s love for creation. We love God as our faith grows, and we follow in faithfulness.
We love God by loving our neighbors in the same way we love ourselves. This means that we must love ourselves in appropriate ways. We must practice good self-care, tending to our health, physically, spiritually, and mentally.
In the same way that we exercise self-care, we should exercise care for our neighbors. When we love our neighbor well, we will also be loving God well.
Of course, loving God, loving ourselves well, and loving others well isn’t easy. We fail at those endeavors often. As often as we get it right, we get it wrong. But our life, and our faith, is a journey of growth in love and faith. If our study of Mark has taught us anything, it is that Jesus is extremely patient with his followers. If Jesus is patient with the disciples, he will be patient with us, constantly guiding us deeper into love.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Have you ever been asked to summarize a complex system or idea in a sentence or two? Was it easy? Was it hard? What made it easy or hard?
Try to see, without using this week’s passage, if you could summarize Israel’s Law. How did you do?
Questions like the one the scribe asked in Mark 12:28-34 weren’t unusual. Why would a question like the one the scribe asked be important?
What do you think the scribe’s intention is with this question?
Jesus quotes two different Old Testament texts. Look up and read Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Leviticus 19:9-19. Why does Jesus quote from these two sections of scripture?
The other gospels don’t include Jesus saying the first part of the commandment from Deuteronomy, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Why do you think that is? What could Jesus be emphasizing by quoting this part of the passage?
In what ways are we to love God? Does Jesus leave anything out? If so, what? Do we tend not to love God with our heart or soul, or mind or strength? If so, why?
Jesus answers the scribe’s request to know which command was first by offering up two commands. Why does Jesus do this?
When you hear that you should love your neighbor “as your self,” what do you think that means? Can you not love yourself enough? Can you love yourself too much? If so, how?
What is the connection between the first and second command? Can you do one without doing the other?
Have you ever emphasized fulfilling one command but neglecting the other? Why? How can we better fulfill both commands.
 Lamar Williamson, Mark, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Atlanta, GA: J. Knox Press, 1983), 226.
 William C. Placher, Mark, (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Kindle E-book Location, 3474.
 John Wesley, “Sermon 7: The Way to the Kingdom,” The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 5:79.