28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 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 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 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,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
My children fight about who will be first in line, first in the door, or first at the table because for them being ‘first’ is about privilege and control. Lately we’ve been hearing a lot about the front runners in the presidential debates for similar reasons. However, in the first-century Jewish context reflected in Mark’s dialogue, ‘first’ was not about these things.
To be ‘first’ in this context came closer to the idea of being the first stone laid—the cornerstone, upon which all of the other stones must rest. Consequently, the greatness of the love commandment lies not in its surpassing value over and against all of the other commandments of Jewish law but, rather, in its ability to hold up all the rest. It’s less about beating out all of the other candidates and more about helping them to do their jobs.
The recitation of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 6:4 begins with the declaration, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone,’ not because God’s ego is so big that God has to get out the door first, but because God is so big that it is only on this promise that the rest of the commands can possibly rest.
I imagine if I ask my children whether they want to be first at the bottom of a multi-person pile up, their rush for the lead might be slightly tempered. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are unlikely to surrender their presidential candidacies in order to bolster the campaigns of the weaker candidates in their respective parties.
But this is what God does and Jesus affirms in our readings today. Just a few chapters after today’s text, Mark’s gospel records how Jesus, in love, surrenders his life to bolster us up in our weakness. These two love commandments come first in the law because it is on them that all of the rest of the commandments of the Torah rest—all that God asks of God’s people, God asks as a response to and expression of love.
So what, then, are the politics at play? In our twenty-first century world where love has become a romantic emotion, this might all seem a little too much like a Beatles song rather than a call to social consciousness and faithful action. But in Jesus’ world, this was not so.
The common Greek dialect in which Mark wrote his gospel knows several different words for love, two of which are used in the New Testament. The first, phileo, refers to ‘brotherly love,’ or a love between equals and expects reciprocity. (This is where the city of Philadelphia gets its name). The other, agapao, refers to a complete and selfless love and expects self-giving. Neither love reflects a solely emotional state, but rather, points to the relation in which one person lives toward another.
The word for love that both Jesus and the scribe use in today’s text is agapao, quoting the same usage from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible with which Jesus and his contemporaries would have been familiar). On the cross, Jesus acts with this agape love.
But agape love doesn’t always have to mean death. At its heart, what it really means, is simply putting the ‘other’ first. This is countercultural today because it breaks just about every rule for running a good political campaign. But it doesn’t stop with the politicians. Acting with agape love as our first commandment means stepping back from whatever other codes of conduct or moral laws dictate our personal ethics and asking first, What does this mean for my neighbor? Or, even more potently, Is this me giving myself to my neighbor? Is this me giving myself to my God? Because to put love of God and neighbor first means not just to act according to what we think is best for our neighbor, but rather, to act in such a way that we give our very self to our neighbor—and to let that be the foundation upon which everything else is built.