In today’s reading, we once again see various groups seeking to trap Jesus in questions. The Pharisees and Herodians ask about taxes. The Saducees ask about marriage in the resurrection, a question that is so complex that it reminds me of math classes in high school. I can almost see the Saducees moving next to ask Jesus where Train A will meet Train B in light of their different speeds! As has always been the case, Jesus proves a worthy opponent and evades the traps by turning the questions back on the questioners.
Then we hear an honest question from a sympathetic listener: “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (12:28, NIV) To this Jesus replies with a two-fold answer: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (12:29-31) Love God, love neighbor. This answer seems simple, and yet it demands so much. Loving God is not just a matter of Sundays. No, Jesus calls that we love God with “all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” This is an all consuming love that touches all aspects of our lives.
And we may also ask what it means to love neighbor in an ever more connected world. I have personally been struggling with this question since hearing stories about the poor working conditions in overseas factories where many of our favorite technical gadgets are made. What does it mean to love neighbor in a world in which I am connected to people whom I will never meet because we have handled the same tech devices (they made them, I bought and use them)? And then we can also bring the question closer to home by thinking of the people we do know. Are we loving them as ourselves?
The teacher of the law who asks the question agrees with and approves of Jesus’ answer. In response, Jesus tells him that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” (12:34) It seems that agreeing with Jesus is a first step in the right direction. Obeying him will be the second. Yet obedience can seem so difficult in light of such an all-encompassing commandment! Here we must remember grace. Grace strengthens us for the journey and picks us up when we fall. Just as Jesus did not abandon his first disciples in their faults, he will also not abandon us. The key is that we choose to follow, living up to what we have already attained and ready to receive more. And also ready to accept grace when we fail; a grace that helps us get back on our feet and begin following again.
Let us, then, set our hearts on following this Jesus. Let us seek to love God and neighbor as he said. In doing so, we may find that, like the teacher of the law, we are not far from the kingdom.