And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 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, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.
(St Mark 12:28-34 ESV)
There were a lot of scribes (read: lawyers or legal scholars) and Pharisees in Jerusalem in A.D. 30. So it shouldn’t surprise us to find some good apples among them. Here we see one: a fine gentlemen who is a lawyer and a Pharisee, who is straight as an arrow and not a fussy bean counter. He has been listening to Jesus parry and counter a run of crooked questions, and is duly impressed with his wisdom. So he asks Jesus a simple, foursquare question, and gets something Jesus rarely gave: a direct answer.
The course of the dialogue should particularly interest us as we draw near to Lent, with its focus on disciplines, on fasting and giving up, on repenting of and killing sin, on obedience and faithfulness. First, the scribe’s opening question protects us from a real danger: practicing Lenten disciplines mindlessly, hardly regarding God’s commandments at all, counting adherence to our disciplines as righteousness rather than as training for righteousness.* Second, the scribe’s reply to Jesus’s answer recognizes, after the manner of Jesus himself, the absolute preeminence of the twofold great commandment: love God with all that is in you, and your neighbor as yourself. If the twofold great commandment is not our focus and centerpiece, our Lenten efforts to mortify our besetting sins will prove about as effective as trying to kill off the dandelions in our yards by swatting their heads with five irons. If “I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (1 Cor. 13:3). The severest disciplines, the most heroic bodily acts of righteousness, are profitless without love at the root. The good scribe gets this, and so Jesus, who knows all that is in a man, declares him “not far from the kingdom of God.”
* cf. St Mark 7:1-23.