In high-school, my friend, Bill, was outraged after a history class. The teacher got something wrong, and Bill raised his hand to say, “Uh, Harry Truman wasn’t the president at the beginning of the Second World War.” His teacher did not accept the correction gracefully and scolded Bill for speaking up. When class was over, he motioned Bill over to talk alone, saying, “Listen, Bill. We both know you’re a lot smarter than me, but please just don’t embarrass me like that in front of the other kids.”
As a teenager, he felt slighted by his teacher’s words, but today, now a professor himself, Bill has found an enormous amount of delight when his students surpass him in knowledge, skill, and understanding.
That history teacher reminds me a bit of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Insecure in the presence of Jesus, they wanted Him to fail and tried to catch Him in a mistake. The scribe, on the other hand, asked a softball question: “WhIch command is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28). Jesus’s response did not unmask some ancient mystery; everyone present would have likely known the answer. Moses and Joshua preached it and countless priests after them: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:28,30; Deuteronomy 6:5).
The teachers knew the commandment, and thousands of years later, we, too, know we are supposed to love God and our neighbor. So, if we all understand this command, why, as Peter puts it, do we “disobey the word”? (1Peter 2:8). Because in our sin, we believe the lie that Jesus is not enough, that He is capable of making mistakes. Maybe we aren’t all that eager to learn from Him. When things don’t go as we’d planned, our instinct is not to follow the way of Jesus. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we would rather try to teach Him. We do not love His ways. But rejecting God’s command is rejecting Jesus—and rejecting Jesus is rejecting God’s love altogether.
There is a double meaning in Jesus’s response to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34) because Christ was standing right next to Him. That scribe was beginning to understand; his eyes were opening to how obedience of the heart is more important than all the empty burnt offerings and sacrifices. And as we come to understand how God’s love is at the heart of obedience, we understand more of how His kingdom works.