Wed, October 27, 202110 mins readFather Hans Buob

The Question of the Greatest Commandment

Biblical Homilies on the Sunday Gospels in Reading Year B

Bible passages


Mark 12:28-34

Biblical Homilies


The Question of the Greatest Commandment

One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?”Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these." The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that (he) answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

In this Gospel passage, we have the greatest commandment of love, the most important message of the whole Gospel. Unfortunately, we often forget it quickly because we have heard it so many times. Ascribe approaches Jesus and asks him the crucial question about the greatest of all commandments. Immediately before, he had listened to his argument with the Sadducees about the resurrection and was still impressed by Jesus’ way of reasoning and his excellent answer. Unlike many other scribes, he seems to have a positive attitude towards Jesus and does not ask him about many individual commandments written by men, but about the first and most important, all-encompassing greatest commandment. Jesus’ answer includes a first and a second commandment. No other commandment is greater and more important than these two. And we should now listen carefully to what Jesus means.

Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (cf. Verses 29-30)

“Hear, O Israel!” This is often overlooked when reading the greatest commandment, but it is at the beginning. This is the first thing that God asks: We are to hear. I have the impression that we listen far too little. Think about it: When you pray, do you also listen to God or do you only talk to him? Do you listen to his voice in everyday life? Do you ask yourself what God wants to tell you, for example, through a particular encounter, through a success or failure, or through events that you hear about in the newspapers, on the radio, in the media? It is not for nothing that we have two ears and only one mouth. This is a sign that in prayer we should listen more than we talk. It is said of Mother Teresa that in prayer she listened to God in her heart for three-quarters of an hour, and in the last quarter of an hour she spoke to him about what she had heard. So: “Hear, O Israel!” Learn to hear! Now you do not need to have any apparitions or to hear anything with your ears, but perceive inwardly what God wants to tell you through certain things and events. Listen also to God when you pray! This is also the first of the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone!” (cf. Dt 5:7. 6:4 and Ex 20:3) He is the only Lord and asserts his claim to rule exclusively. In one story it is reported that a member of the Roman Senate requested that Jesus Christ be included in the Pantheon. The Pantheon was the temple in which all the gods known to the Romans at that time were placed. The request of the member of the Senate was rejected on the following grounds: Jesus Christ does not tolerate any other gods besides Himself, so He cannot simply be included in this collection, in this hodgepodge of gods. He, the Lord alone, asserts his claim to dominion. The Lord our God is the only Lord. This statement is also a statement of salvation. If he is our Lord, he is also our Savior, that is, the one who cares for us, who takes care of us. Jesus says that we should love God “with all our heart.” What does that mean? Romano Guardini once said, “The heart is the center of man.” We are to use all our emotional as well as rational powers, which are summed up in our heart, as a source of love for God, and to be totally directed toward God in all our intentions, ideas, and expectations. Then we are to love him "with all our soul", that is, to love him with the whole of our existence, with the whole of our desire for life. This refers especially to our willpower, because understanding and will are abilities of the spirit. We should love him with our whole soul, that is, with our willpower, with our whole desire for life. And this includes martyrdom, that is, the devotion of life. We are to love him “with all our strength,” i.e. with the whole capacity of our human existence. Strength means all the means that are at man’s disposal – through our abilities materially, mentally, and spiritually. With everything we should love him, i.e. loving God in every way. With all our strength we are to love him. Finally, it is said: We are to love God “with all our mind.” This emphasizes the reasonableness of loving God. If God is God, it is reasonable to love him, since he himself is love. The Greek word for “love” here is “agape.” So it is about a love that we cannot accomplish from ourselves. In Greek, “agape” would stand for such a love. “Agape” includes “philia,” but it means a much more intensive love. The word “agape” is also used by Jesus when he speaks of the love of enemies. It is the divine virtue of love that is infused into us in baptism, the love of the Father for the Son and of the Son for us. It is the same love. It is Holy Spirit - as a person. That is why it is important to ask for this Holy Spirit every day. You will often realize, if you allow it, even if humanly you feel angry or rejected or hesitation or even hatred towards someone, and then listen quite honestly within yourself, that you don’t have to hate that person, you don't have to condemn them with words, but that you can be silent. And without suppressing the feelings, realize that there is a power in you, from Jesus, that you can really stay in “agape,” in love, without condemning. That you don’t have to follow these emotions of hatred, rejection, or aggression, neither by words, nor by deeds. That’s when you realize: There is a power in me that is capable of this love. That is what is meant here. So the greatest commandment is not simply a moral appeal: “You shall,” but: “You can!” This is the correct statement. Because of salvation, because of your baptism, this grace is given to you. If you walk with God, then it will also unfold in you. And because of this divine power, you can love like this. And you have to try it again and again in order to really, really experience it: I don’t have to hate. And when I feel hate, I must notice it and change.

“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (cf. Verse 31)

In the first letter of John, the apostle John writes: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother whom he sees cannot love God whom he does not see” (cf. 1 John 4:20). We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. First, we must ask ourselves: do I love myself as I am, not as I want to be? Do I love myself as God intended and loves me? Am I saying “yes” to myself? If I can’t do that, I can’t say “yes” to my fellow human beings either.  You will notice this again and again. We must first love ourselves. In order to be able to do that, we have to know ourselves. What is a person who doesn’t know themselves supposed to love? Or if someone says to themselves all the time: “I’m no good. I am nothing, I can’t do anything anyway, it would be best if I didn’t live at all” - I can’t love myself that way. We must first become aware: What value do I have from God? We are the image of God. God becomes man, he risks his life - only for me, to save me! What am I worth to him? What do I mean to him? When I look at the cross, I see what I have cost God, how powerful God’s love has always been and shows itself on the cross. I cannot say: “I am nothing and I am good for nothing!” So I must first realize my self-worth, in a good sense, to let God tell me who I am - even if I have experienced rejection among people. Revelation says that a white amulet with the new, unique name will be given to the one who is victorious (cf. Rev 2:17). My relationship with God is unique. God's relationship with me is unique. It will never exist again. If I accept myself as I am, that is “loving myself,” and not egoistically, but just from this power of the Holy Spirit. With the Holy Spirit, I can accept myself as I am, not as I would like to be. And then I can also accept my neighbor as they are and not as I want them to be. To love the neighbor as oneself - this corresponds also to the golden rule from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12). This means to care for one’s neighbor, according to their right and situation, as one would expect for oneself. “Whatever you wish others to do to you, do also to them,” says Jesus. This is how to love your neighbor as yourself.

“The scribe said to him, ‘Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.’” (cf. Verses 32-33)

This commandment is more important than all commandments of sacrifice, even the scribe confesses. In another place Jesus says: “Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23-24). Jesus does not ask which of the two is to blame, but it is only a matter of knowing that my brother has something against me. “And then comes and offer your gift,” that is, yourself. Reconcile yourself first! Because love is the most decisive thing in the Kingdom of God, and we usually forget that. How many times a day do we speak uncharitably about people, how many times do we think unkindly! Even just walking past people, we often judge them negatively - that their clothes are inappropriate, or their gait, or something else. And most of the time we don’t fix it and stay with the negative thoughts about that person: “A funny guy, a funny woman” - when love is the most important thing in the Kingdom of God. We often forget that. ∎