We love the GOAT question, don’t we? “Greatest of All Time.” Well, some love it. We all know that Michael Jordan is the GOAT when it comes to basketball. Don’t even start with me about LeBron. We can also talk about Tom Brady and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky and Mia Hamm and Pele and Djokovic and Serena. But they all are or were great at playing a game, and the discussions about who was the greatest in their respective sports are mere mortals like you and me.
The encounter Jesus had in Mark 12 is not about a game but has to do with commandments, the laws of God. The arbiter of this discussion is not a mere mortal, a talking head on ESPN. He is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. The one who comes to Jesus is a scribe, and it is the only friendly encounter between Jesus and the scribes in the Gospel. The scribes were considered experts in the law, not the laws of Rome, but the laws of God as found in the Torah. The scribes were the Supreme Court Justices of their day, experts in interpreting the law and rendering binding decisions on their interpretation. This man has just heard Jesus interpret Exodus 6:3 and putting the Sadducees in their place, and he was no doubt impressed. So, he comes to Jesus with a question. It was not uncommon in those days to ask reputable teachers about the law, and to ask them their opinion on the most important of the laws. It was a favorite pastime then to debate the question, of the 613 commandments in the written and oral laws, 248 positive and 365 negative, which is the foremost of all, which laws are heavy and which laws are light? Twenty years before Jesus, the famous Rabbi Hillel summarized the Torah with a twist of the Golden Rule. He wrote, “What you would not want done to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the entire Torah, everything else is interpretation.” Hmmm. That seems to give me permission to never do anything to help my neighbor; all that is required is that I don’t do anything to harm my neighbor. And here’s something else. Hillel was speaking to Jews about Jews and how Jews are supposed to live. But the question this scribe presents to Jesus is bigger than that. The question is not, “of all the commandments, which is the most important for Jews to follow,” or, which is the GOAT? The sense of the question is rather, “Which commandment supersedes everything and is incumbent on all humanity—including Gentiles?” (James Edwards)
Jesus answers, “And 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.” Then he adds, “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
The order is important. First, we are commanded to love God. In fact, we cannot truly love our neighbor if we do not love God first. “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:19-20) So, love God and love your neighbor. That’s the order. But how are we to love God? The manner is important.
We are commanded to love God with all four facets of our person and personality, and Jesus lays rightful claim on each one with four “alls”: all of our heart, all of our soul, all of our mind, and of our strength. These are not rigid divisions of our lives, but together they make up all of who we are, and each has an effect on the others. The heart is mentioned first, perhaps because it is central in loving God. Solomon wrote, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Heart and soul are different words, but both can refer to the inner part of who we are, the immaterial substance of our lives. “Soul” could be translated “spirit,” the breath of life that God breathes into man or woman to make us living beings. Our mind is our faculty of understanding and as we feed it from the Word, our love for God should grow with it. Our strength is the power we have from God to love him with our will, to act and to speak and to stand for His name’s sake. Jesus says in effect to you and me, “All of your heart, all of your soul, all of your mind and all of your strength belong to me. Love me with them, and when you do, you will also love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus lifted these ancient laws out of the mire of tradition and legalism and made them live in the hearts of men and women who know him.