Mark 12:28-34 (NRSVCE)
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?” Jesus answered, “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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 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’; 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.” 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.
Which commandment is the first of all? Which is the greatest?
Recall that the scribes and the Pharisees obsess themselves over how to apply the Law. Recall that they view the Law as a measuring stick for holiness, and for authority. Inevitably that sort of thinking results in conflicting opinions. You have people competing with each other in this race to ultimate piety, and in order to get ahead, they are going to start insisting that particular parts of the Law are more important than others. If this part is more important, then I can focus more attention on that and become more authoritative and more holy than those other people. This became a real theological debate amongst Jews at the time. And so their question here to Jesus isn’t genuine interest in his thoughts. It’s a trap. It’s trying to categorize him. “Which kind of Jew are you?” They want to suck Jesus into their game of measuring sticks, to bring him down to their level, so that they have a definitive label, a definitive brand that they can curse him with.
But Jesus doesn’t even hesitate. He has no interest in getting involved in their squabbles of who appears to be more holy, according to their own man-made scales. He surprises them all with not one, but two laws. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. They were not doing this. They were loving themselves above all things. That is why they felt the need to measure holiness like that. God was not their focus. True holiness was not their focus. Their focus was their own pride. They only cared about their own vanity.
Jesus further rebukes them with the second law. Love your neighbor as yourself. What good is spending all this energy creating a measuring stick if there is nothing to measure myself against? They needed competitors. They needed opponents. And they found them in each other. They found reasons to turn each other into enemies, so they could prove their own holiness. “I am not completely holy, but I am certainly more holy than them!” They have no love for one another. They love themselves, and even that is a false love. For one who truly loves themselves would love God first, and love themselves in reference to God. I love myself by pursuing true holiness, by pursuing right relationship with my God, and by holding fast to the Body of Christ, for I am a true member of that Body. But they love themselves in reference to nothing. They have no true love for self, and thus they cannot comprehend loving their neighbor as themselves. This is why Jesus emphasizes love of God first. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not first love God. And you cannot love God if you do not love your neighbor.
Jesus’ words avoided the trap. But they also convicted the scribe. The scribe realized that what Jesus said is true, and that he had been led astray by petty squabbles rooted in pride. He realized that to love God and to love your neighbor is surely far more important than anything else in this world. It wasn’t until he learned this, until he turned his eyes toward Christ, that Christ said “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”