Rabbi Hillel was a famous and influential Jewish teacher born in Babylon 110 BC. He is known, in Jewish tradition, as the father of Jewish ethics. There is a story about a non-jewish (goy) man going to his home and asking to learn about the 613 Jewish Mizvot (Commandments) while standing on one foot. Rabbi Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your brother. That is the whole of the Torah. The rest is just commentary, now if you are really interested…go and read the commentary.” Tradition tells us that the man did just that and became Jewish. Now, if you ever wondered where we get the phrase, “The Golden rule.” You just learned it right now. That is the source.
In today’s reading we have a very similar situation. In Mark 12:28-34, a scribe comes to Jesus and asks what is the greatest of the commandments. Now, Jesus expands it slightly from what we are told Rabbi Hillel said, but then Jesus is talking to a man who already knows the Mizvot because he is a scribe (teachers of the law). Jesus tells the scribe that the greatest commandments are: Mark: 12 29-31 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c] There is no commandment greater than these.”
The scribe replied with understanding, agreeing with Jesus, and even goes on to say that those are more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices. I think this is an important point we should focus on in his reply. At this time in Jewish history, burnt offering and sacrifices of animals, grain, wine, and incense (sound any kind of familiar?) were offered at the temple for the forgiveness of sins. They were offered as the fulfillment of the 613 commandments. (Does this also sound familiar? Matthew 5:17) So, the scribe saying that those two commandments were greater than all that was significant.
Jesus heard the wisdom, saw that the scribe was earnest in his searching, and told him something that silenced the room. “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Consider this the ancient equivalent of a mic drop. No one dared asked more questions. Why? Because for all the ritual, sacrifice, and laws, there was no clear path to the kingdom. Jesus was basically saying in those two things you have the foundational step toward the kingdom. It blew everyone’s mind. They didn’t know what Jesus knew, and I think they were afraid to ask, perhaps didn’t even know what to ask.
Now my question is for us is twofold. Are we, two thousand years later, living the most important commandments? Do we, two thousand years later, with the full story open to us (a privilege that scribe did not have) truly understand the answer to the question they dare not ask then? If you don’t know, the question they might have asked then was: If I am close to the kingdom by obeying those two great commandments, how then do I enter the kingdom?
We cannot have one without the other. We cannot obey the first without also accepting the fulfillment, and we cannot accept the fulfillment without also obeying the two greatest commandments. Two thousand years later, have we not learned anything?
Rabbi Hillel also said another thing: Those who will not learn deserve extinction.
He wasn’t too far off in that either. Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Will we learn or will we get what we deserve? We have the two greatest commandments and the fulfillment of the law, in Jesus. That is the sum of the entire bible, the rest is commentary…now go and read the commentary.
Food for thought and prayer.
Here I am, Lord, send me.