The First Commandment

There are times when a sentence of scriptures sings and sizzles with meaning. This morning, it was as though I had heard the gospel of the day, Mark 12.28–34, for the first time.

One of the scribes came up to Jesus and put a question to him, ‘Which is the first of all the commandments?’ Jesus replied, ‘This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to him, ‘Well spoken, Master; what you have said is true: that he is one and there is no other. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself, this is far more important than any holocaust or sacrifice.’ Jesus, seeing how wisely he had spoken, said, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ And after that no one dared to question him any more.

What struck me forcibly was the restatement of that first commandment. We tend to be so anxious to rush on to the second that we do not feel the full impact of the first. What does it mean to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength? To love God absolutely? Most of us, I think, would say we aspire to love God in that way but are aware that we don’t. There are pockets of reserve, occasions when God definitely isn’t at the forefront of our lives, instances of rebellion, sin and failure. In the past I have annoyed many people in the Catholic blogosphere by suggesting that the way in which we blog reveals a great deal about how we think of God and the place he occupies in our lives. To some, he is a hammer with which to batter others — and that applies equally whether we self-identify as liberals or conservatives. To others, he is a kind of warm, fuzzy blanket to be thrown over every difficult or painful situation, someone with whom we are on apparently matey terms. We may not be pope, but we speak for God, being quite certain that his opinion must be the same as ours.

I must confess that I find all this rather difficult. Sometimes, when I am irritated by something or someone, I have the good sense to go into the oratory. I have to learn again and again, it seems, that human anger does not work God’s purposes, that a raging heart is never a truly reverent heart. It is too noisy, too full of itself. Before the altar, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, my burning concerns turn to dust and ashes. It is in silence, love and adoration that we make room for God to be all-in-all. Only then, only when we are filled with God, can we go out and take him to others. The second commandment is like the first, but it is not a substitute for it. God comes first — always.

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7 thoughts on “The First Commandment”

  1. I, too, was strangely zapped by this reading. Like you it was first part that got me. I was grateful for the reminder of The Oneness.

    I also liked, in your post, the translation reading ‘Listen, Israel’ – it sounded so colloquial & close – over the usual ‘Hear’ (which I am fond of, too, but which, in English, has a slightly different nuance. I wonder if these differences exist in Hebrew?)

  2. I was grabbed by this, too, and thought, as you do that we rush on to the second commandment and forget the first. I also agree that how we speak or write about God says much about our image of God. However, I need to remember that each of us has a different experience of God which, in turn, leads to our own unique relationship. Similarly, our life experiences, religious upbringing and opportunities will be very different and all will affect our relationship with God. God comes to us as we are, and, if we listen and respond, will take us somewhere else, to a place in which we can surrender and, in that surrendering, find true peace. I also have to remember God’s patience with me when I am inclined to be impatient with other people.

  3. We use the two greatest commandments in our BCP Communion services – and it gives me a thrill to the heart each time I hear them.

    I know that I’m not perfect, but I do love God,even if I spurn him, with my lack of attention to him at times – the ‘worldly’ concerns that take over, bother me a bit and I come back to him in repentance when I do forget for a while that he” made me to know him, to love him and to be with him in this life and forever in the next” in the words of the Catholic Catechism that we learned by heart in childhood. Only much later as an Anglican, did those words resound for me.

    I suspect that you can take the boy out of the Catholic Church, but you can’t take the Catholic out of him 🙂

  4. This passage from Mark is well-loved and often quoted. In the King James Version, which I read, verse 31 says: “And the second is like, namely, this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” I’m not sure it’s a matter of rushing on to the second commandment as much as these two commandments are united. The first commandment should be just that – first in our hearts.

    Your final paragraph beautifully states what is required to place God first.

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