Wouldn’t it be rather scandalous if Jesus were to be seen mis-quoting the Bible? Well, that’s what happens in today’s Gospel passage.
Or so it seems.
Going a Step Beyond Moses
Let’s take a closer look. Today’s Gospel passage is Mk 12:28-34 and it hearkens back to a central passage in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Jesus is walking and teaching. Several learned men of the Law have been engaging Him in debate and Jesus has been responding with his typical brevity and trenchant insight.
A scribe has been watching, listening, taking this in. He’s impressed. So he brings to Jesus a question that has been burning in his mind. It appears he does so in earnest.
“Which is the first of all the commandments?”
In Greek, which is the ἐντολὴ πρώτη – the entolay protay – of all the commandments? In other words, which is the prototype commandment compared to which all others are secondary?
Unless we are Jewish, we might not appreciate how complex this question is. There are in fact 613 mitzvah – or commandments – in the Jewish Law. To be able to single out the one that stands above all the rest is no small feat. It’s like being asked to pick out, at a glance, the most beautiful leaf on a maple tree in the height of fall. How does one weigh and judge among so many? How does one pick out the differences?
Yet, as ever, when faced with a puzzling question, Jesus scythes through the difficulty. He cuts to the essence and adds an insight the questioner doesn’t even envision.
Let’s take his reply piece by piece.
“The first commandment is this,” he says: “Hear, O Israel . . .” (Mk. 12:29)
Note that before Jesus names the protoype commandment, he commands. Commands what?
Hearing is not Listening
He commands hearing. We should not skip past this point.
What does he mean by “hear?”
We might readily think of hear in the sense of “listen.” Sometimes “listen” is even given as the translation. But there is more going on here than listening.
Listening connotes a kind of attendance-taking of sounds around us: noticing them but not hearing them. Noticing, for example, that a bird chirps in distant tree; but not letting the wonder of that little creature impress itself on your awareness. The crisp beauty of the sound it makes, the exquisiteness of its complex being, the intricacy of how it lives and moves. Listening is one dimensional hearing.
Hearing is more like letting the totality of a thing announce its presence to you through the mere sound it makes. Being struck by the beauty and nobility of the bird just by hearing its chur-ree chur-ree!
Similarly, hearing a word from the Lord is standing in wonder before an utterance from God, as before a Word uttered by a Person of power and love; it is letting that utterance enter you, shape you, determine you, illuminate you. Hearing is different than listening.
Hearing also means that we are to hear the Word, which means not just read it. When alone, we should speak this Word out loud. We should frequent places where it is spoken. Hearing has more of a receptive quality to it than reading, which is more acquisitive in nature. A disciple hears and lets the impression of the sound and meaning strike the mind and soul; a scholar or an urban mind reads, assembles, skims, masters and moves on.
Both are important, but the first commandment that Jesus notes is something that we should hear, not read.
In short, first we are called to hear God’s voice. To hear in these second two senses I have described.
Now Jesus continues: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your 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.”
Here Jesus quotes, nearly, Deuteronomy 6:4. I say nearly because one might say he misquotes it, for he changes something of rather noteworthy significance. But I will come back to that.
Agape is Greater than Love
What I want to call your attention to first is the verb He commands. It is not love as we use the word love. It is agape. You will agape the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.
Agape is the word reserved in Scripture to denote love as God loves. The highest nature of love.
If we could understand what these words mean – if we could hear with full understanding of the heart and intelligence – we would fall back in our chairs as though the wind were knocked out of us. As though we had just climbed to a peak and gazed with wonder at a vista of the Grand Canyon – for the first time. As though we stood there at sunrise, with not a soul around. There is something beyond us here. Our physical heart should skip a beat upon hearing these words. Our spiritual heart should stop and stand still, in awe.
Agape God with all my heart? Agape God with all my soul? Agape God with all my mind? Agape God will all my strength?
What exactly is Jesus asking? Is this even possible? What would my life look like if I did that, this, the commandment from which all other commandments derive?
That is a question we should ask ourselves. I can’t answer it here. I can only say it is worth asking.
Jesus Misquotes Deuteronomy
What I most want to comment on here is the way in which Jesus misquotes the Bible.
What do I mean by that?
I mean this. The text Jesus quotes from, in Deuteronomy, reads as follows:
“You shall love the LORD your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole strength . . .”
Heart. Soul. Strength. These are three attributes of the human person which Moses summons to the love of God.
Yet Jesus, when he cites this verse to the scribe, adds a fourth attribute. “You shall love the Lord with all your mind” (see Mk. 12:30). Thus, to heart, soul and strength, Jesus adds διάνοια – dianoia – the organ that serves as the locus for rational thought, reflection and insight. The mind.
Why does Jesus add mind to Moses’ formulation of the ways we are to love God? Does he not know his Bible?
Obviously, I’m being provocative. Yet in a real sense we must ask ourselves what’s going on here.
Here’s my take.
Jesus knows his Bible. As the second person of the Trinity, he has already shown that he stands above the law as its author and interpreter, as we saw when he wrote with his finger in the dust while the Pharisees waited to condemn the adulteress under the law (Cf. Jn 8:1-11 and it’s discussion here, section 3). He transcends the Law because he co-wrote it, finger to stone, with the Father and the Spirit.
A second place where He reveals that He stands as authoritative interpreter of the Mosaic law is when he declared Moses’ original intent in articulating the Law with respect to marriage and divorce (Cf. Mk 10:5-6 as discussed here, section 1).
So it is nothing new to see Jesus standing as interpreter of all the Law. We should therefore not be surprised that he could determine which of the 613 commandments is the most important; and then add an edit to the first of the commandments.
But why the edit?
Here’s my take. When Moses first delivered the divine commandment – Hear O Israel – to the people of Israel, these were simpler times. When he commanded them to love the Lord with all their hearts, he meant the heart as it was understood in the earliest of biblical times: as the locus of emotion, will, perception and discursive thought. Not the physical heart that pumps blood. But the core of a person that receives information from the outside world (senses), reacts to it (emotions), thinks about it (thoughts) and decides on a course of action (will). In those days, the mind – as we have come to understand it – could be understood by the people as falling under the general heading of heart in this core human sense.
But as time passed the functions of human intelligence, emotion and will became more and more bifurcated. The action of perception and rational reflection took on a life of their own, in a kind of separate thought world from that of deep emotion and will. This is even more plainly evident today. Rational thought and the organ that serves as its point of origin is something of a stand-alone current in the human being. Jesus sought to address that current independently – the current of the mind – that it might also be brought into the single stream of personhood that God commands be pointed toward Him.
(I make these comments even while acknowledging my non-medical understanding that emotions have their seat in the physical brain also. But in the biblical period, emotions were identified with the heart because the heart could be felt to move under their influence, as though it was their originating source.)
All that said, I arrive at this insight, rich for us today: Jesus is adding this nuance to Deuteronomy.
Hear O Israel: You shall love the Lord with all your mind . . .
I can scarcely even hint at what this might mean. Love God with the totality of one’s mind? We – whose minds skitter and scatter, reflect and refract in all directions from all points of stimulus, present and past? To say nothing of our projections, desires and worries for the future? What kind of being is Jesus calling for here, what kind of quality of mind? One that, it would appear, operates under a kind of harmonic unity, always tuned to the grounding current of love. Always operating toward love, governed by love, receptive to love, considerate of love.
I am fairly staggered by this thought. Challenged by it. Inspired by it. This is the thought I most want to hold onto from today’s passage.
What higher power and inner energy could hold my mind in this way, in this loving tension toward God – a tension both responsive to and discerning of the world around me? What kind of mind could be at once so judicious and disciplined in its operation? Such a mind is the mind of the wise. Paul calls it the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).
I pray that the operations of such a mind might become more common in me. That my mind might become more like this mind. Yes, I dare to pray that prayer.
Love Those Nearest to You
I must say one final word in passing because it’s so central to this passage. Jesus says it’s co-prototypical.
For, in the end, Jesus disobeys the scribe’s request. He does not give a single greatest commandment. He gives two.
He names one commandment (whole-hearted, whole-minded, whole-souled love of God) but then he adds that there is a second commandment, it would seem, of equal weight.
That second co-prototypical commandment is to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
But here’s the thing. “Neighbor” is a tired translation, easily passed over, easily limited in our minds to a few people in our neighborhood or social group.
But the original word is πλησίον (plesion) and it means literally “the one who is nearest to you.” In other words, those closest to where you find yourself. This could be the loving, snoring, messy or the demanding spouse; the workmate the next desk over; the driver moving slowly in front of you; the annoying family in the grocery store slowing your forward progress; the homeless person it is easier to pass by. My plesion is a constantly changing reality.
It is the person nearest that little bubble in which I move about in this world.
So that what Jesus is really saying here is:
I want you to be a moving organism of agape, always radiating outward wherever you are, to the person nearest you; always showing that same love you have seen me radiate to every person I encountered – friend, child or foe. The same agape, for agape is the word used here too.
I want you to be, on earth, an organism of agape radiating outward to the nearest person in your life. Spouse, child, parent, sibling, bus driver, Uber driver, co-worker, adversary, ex-spouse, competitor. All of them. Whoever is closest to you in the moment. That is the person I call you to love as you love your very self. To love with the agape you have seen me reveal when I walked the dusty streets of this lovely, humble earth.
I close by returning to my title: Jesus misquotes the Bible. He misquotes it because he wrote it. Or rather he spoke it. He is the intelligence and the agape from which it springs. And where the message needs refining to a changing audience he knows where and how to do so. Jesus edits the Word and he speaks it afresh to those who hear Him.
Father, I hear the words you speak to me. I consent to your commands. I consecrate my heart to you. I consecrate my soul to you. I consecrate my mind to you. I consecrate to you all my strength. Have mercy on me when I turn away. Help me to love those nearest to me with the same agape I have seen revealed by Jesus on the face of this earth. Help me to be an organism of your agape on earth, loving you whole-heartedly, loving you with all my mind, with all my soul, with all my strength and loving those nearest to me with the agape I have seen in you.
That I might one day hear Jesus say, as He said to the scribe, you are not far from the Kingdom of God.