It’s Holy Week. On Sunday, Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and was greeted by jubilant crowds shouting, “Hosanna,” meaning, “Save, we pray” or Save now!” Then the apostle Mark offers a hint of what lay ahead: “Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve” (Mark 11:11).
The next day, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and clears the temple courts, overturning the tables of the money changers and driving out those buying and selling goods. The forecourt of the temple was the one place Gentiles could gather to pray, but with business being conducted in their midst, they were effectively shut out from praying. Jesus is incensed, and quoting the prophet Jeremiah, he declares, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’”(1) When the religious authorities heard this, they sought a way to kill Jesus.
It’s now Tuesday, and Jesus’s confrontational actions the day before precipitate a series of pointed questions from various representatives of the religious leadership. I imagine if you witnessed these charged scenes in a play, the action would be swift, abrupt, and even exhausting to take in: enter group one, exit stumbling group one … enter group three, exit stumbling group three. First, “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you authority to do this?’”(2) Jesus in turn asks them a question, and they are silenced. “Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words…. Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.”(3) To the second group he observed their hypocrisy and the third, their error, because they did not “know the Scriptures or the power of God.”(4) Their attempts to entrap Jesus are confounded and they walk away.
Lastly, one of the teachers of the law who was listening to the debate approaches Jesus. But this teacher is different. Mark writes, “Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’” (12:28). Jesus receives his question as a genuine search for understanding, for he replies by reciting the Shema, the central affirmation of confession for a Jewish person: “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one’” (verse 29). God had spoken these very words to Moses when He renewed his covenant with his people at Sinai in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land. God’s oneness indicates his uniqueness and absolute sovereignty: “the Lord is God. Beside him there is no other.”(5) God alone delivered them from the bondage of Egypt and brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey. He alone was their refuge and hope, their provider and protector in the midst of hardship and famine.
The Shema identifies the character of God, and it is upon his gracious and faithful character that the greatest commandment rests, says Jesus: “‘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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (verse 30). God calls forth all our love and devotion because He offers us all of Him—as Jesus himself would demonstrate in his suffering on the cross.
The teacher recognizes Jesus’s words as truth and responds, “To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Unlike the other religious authorities who attempted to entrap Jesus in a legal debate while keeping God’s words at a safe distance from their hearts, this teacher recognizes the utter call of God upon those who would seek to follow him. Contrary to those who did not “know the Scriptures or the power of God,” this man understands that one cannot love God and others without allowing God’s Word—as difficult as it may be sometimes—to shine a light into every corner of one’s life. To love God is to take his words to heart and to offer his solace and love to those in need of his provision.
“When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely,” Mark writes, “he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.”
Danielle DuRant is director of research and writing at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Mark 11:17
(2) Mark 11:28
(3) Mark 12:13, 18.
(5) Deuteronomy 4:35.