One of the scribes

A famous story in the Talmud tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. He went to Rabbi Shammai and said to him, “Take me as a proselyte, but on condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.” Shammai, insulted by this request, threw him out of the house. Then the man went to Rabbi Hillel, and Hillel accepted the challenge, saying, “What you don’t like, don’t do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary – now go and study!”[1]

The debate didn’t begin with Shammai and Hillel, and it didn’t end with them. According to Jewish tradition, 613 commandments were given to Moses. 365 negative commandments, answering to the number of days of the year, and 248 positive commandments, answering to the number of members of the human body.[2] Thus the commandments address the whole human person, every day of the year, and they cover all of life: what to eat and what to wear, when to work and when to rest, how to teach your children and how to treat strangers, how to lend and how to borrow, how to love your spouse and how to cook, how to pray and how to farm, everything.

Is there a way, the students of Torah wondered, to capture that totality in a single teaching? Is there one commandment that is something like the principle that is being unfolded in all the others, a primal commandment that represents all the others? The prophet Micah named three, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[3] The prophet Isaiah named two, “Maintain justice and do what is right.”[4] The prophet Amos named one, “Seek me and live.”[5] And the prophet Habakkuk named another, “The righteous shall live by their faith.”[6]

It was common practice among Jews to ask their teachers which was the first commandment. Hillel answered, “What you don’t like, don’t do to your neighbor.” I noticed an application of that commandment with respect to Halloween this past week when I overheard a conversation among middle-aged adults about what treats to give the children who come trick-or-treating. One said, she always hands out candy she wished she had been given when she was little. What she doesn’t like, she doesn’t do to her little neighbors, assuming, of course, that not much has changed in the world of chocolate, candy bars, and gummi bears in the last few decades. You see the problem here: just because you like something, doesn’t mean your neighbor likes it. The trouble with Hillel’s answer is that you may end up making your own likes the standard for how you treat your neighbors. Hillel, of course, would jump in and say, “Wait a minute, not so fast. If you don’t like others making themselves the standard for how they treat you, don’t do it to them.” Excellent point.

I started a little unscientific survey on Thursday. No, I didn’t poll the neighborhood kids to learn what their favorite candy might be. I asked questions about traditions of caring for friends and neighbors in times of need: What did you do when your neighbor’s mother died? What did your friends do when you had your first child? If you were sick for more than just a couple of days, what would be the most helpful thing a friend or neighbor could offer to do?

I asked these questions, because we all have stories about friends who left flowers at our door when we didn’t expect it, and it just made our day, or about neighbors who mowed our yard when mom was in the hospital for weeks, and they did it because they cared, and not to finally show us how it’s done properly.

One of the items included in the survey is, “When I’m sick for more than a couple of days ...” and in response you can either check various responses or add your own. The options I listed are

  • bring food
  • take the kids for a couple of hours
  • get my groceries
  • send chocolate
  • walk my dog
  • mow the yard
  • pray for me
  • send me a note
  • come by for a cup of coffee
  • clean my bathroom
  • do my laundry
  • come and sit with me for a while
  • Other:

Each of these is a way to love your neighbor as yourself, but even a casual glance at the more than fifty surveys that have come in so far shows that our needs and the things that delight us are very different. Some of us just want to be by ourselves when we’re sick and perhaps receive a note while others love the idea of somebody moving in and taking over pretty much all of our household and parenting responsibilities. I hope to come up with a way to report all the findings of the very unscientific survey in a meaningful way, but two findings already are apparent:

1. The better we know each other, the better we are able to care for each other.

2. One of the most caring things we can do for each other is ask, “What can I do for you?”

When the scribe asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” he did what Jews commonly did in those days, that is ask their teachers the big question, and the teachers in turn asked each other, all in pursuit of deeper understanding and for the sake of a life of righteousness. They shared the desire to know if there was a defining principle or a primal commandment that was the rock on which the whole structure of statutes, decrees, precepts, and ordinances rested.

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.”  Jesus didn’t name just one commandment, but two, implying that the will and desire of God for God’s people cannot be reduced to a single principle; all the commandments are rooted in a set of relationships. The two go together, love of God and love of neighbor, and because they are linked we cannot relate well to God without relating well to each other, and vice versa.

Most of us think we know what love is and that we are talking about the same thing when we say the word – but we’re not. Love is about affection and it is about commitment and belonging, love is about vulnerability and desire; and the constellation of these elements shifts from person to person and from season to season. In our culture, love has long been in danger of being reduced to having good feelings about someone or something. Douglas Hare reminds us that,

In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that [the commandment] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.[7]

Love is a deep loyalty to another, and when Jesus teaches us to recognize how loving our neighbor and loving our God are intimately linked, he is not telling us to have warm feelings for friends and strangers alike, but to commit ourselves to their wellbeing. Your neighbor, according to Jesus, can literally be your next-door neighbor who might be tired of eating alone or who might need somebody to rake the leaves for her. Your neighbor may be your father and mother who, after so many years, need you in unfamiliar ways that almost reverse the relationship of parent and child. Your neighbor is every person you encounter, and to love them is to take their desire to flourish as seriously as you take your own. And Jesus never said it was easy.

Then the scribe said to Jesus, “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.”

The scribe agreed with Jesus. This remarkable scene is the only one in Mark’s gospel where a religious authority agrees with Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had encountered strong opposition from Jewish leaders connected with the temple, the chief priests, scribes and elders, and now that Jesus was in Jerusalem, the conflict between him and them continued to escalate. They were already collaborating to have him arrested and put on trial, and any questions they were asking him were designed to trip him up or trap him. But this scribe broke the hostile pattern by asking an honest question. In the middle of the brewing storm he and Jesus made room for each other and for the pursuit of a deeper understanding of God’s will and desire for God’s people, and they discovered that they agreed.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus said to him, and that is as close as it gets in Mark’s telling of the gospel for any of us who await the kingdom’s consummation. Not far from the kingdom, closer to the truth and peace of God.

As we remember and give thanks today “for all the saints who from their labors rest,” let us offer a prayer for those in every generation who broke the hostile patterns of their time by asking honest questions in pursuit of the knowledge of God and a life of righteousness. Let us offer a prayer for those who ask their neighbor, “What can I do for you?” And let us not forget that those who have gone before us are not merely resting in peace, but waiting for us to join them. They are rooting for us as we seek to live life as the gift of God it is.


[1] Shabbat 31a

[2] See Makkot 23b-24a

[3] Micah 6:8

[4] Isaiah 56:1

[5] Amos 5:4

[6] Habakkuk 2:4

[7] Douglas Hare, “Matthew,” Interpretation, 260.