The Lord covered a lot of ground in His teachings on Tuesday of the last week of His life. He spoke about the signs of His second coming. He condemned the Pharisees for being "whited sepulchers," and several times He resisted their attempts to trap him with His words.
But one of His most well-known mini-sermons of that day concerns the two greatest commandments in the law of Moses. Questioned by either a tricky lawyer or an honest, truth-seeking scribe, the Savior's answer had a few dimensions we generally overlook. Mark records it thus:
"Which is the first commandment of all?" (Mark 12:28)
"And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12:29-31)
Christ's answer was in keeping with Jewish tradition--He would have fit in with even the strictest Pharisee, for He was quoting the Shema, the most central prayer in Jewish liturgy, found in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numbers 15:37-41). The Shema is the first prayer in the morning service, and is used on Yom Kippur, the holiest of the High Holy Days. It has also become the traditional last words of Jewish martyrs, a significant fact given Christ's prophecies about His impending death. Praying the Shema is also known as "Accepting the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven." It is a beautifully poetic and heartfelt prayer, a testimony about the nature of God and His commandments, which begins:
"Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohaynu, Adonai Echod."
To the people of His time, the recitation of the beginning of a well-known passage was the equivalent of the recitation of the entire section. Let's examine some of the rest of the passage that was implied by Christ's "greatest commandment:"
"And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates...Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue...that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes...That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 6:6-9, Numbers 15:38-41).
Almost immediately thereafter, Christ condemned the Pharisees for perverting this very commandment, "But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments" (Matthew 23:5).
But we know that at least one man in the congregation took Christ's message to heart--the scribe who had questioned him, "said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God." (Mark 12:32-34). The scribe had learned the lesson taught by Samuel centuries before: "Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Samuel 15:22).
The Shema is an interesting passage for Christ to quote at this point, since, as with the rest of the law of Moses, it points directly to Him. He is the Jehovah of the Old Testament, who would come to redeem His people. His ministry was a testimony to the unity of the Godhead that the
Shema so boldly proclaimed, as He had earlier testified when "the Jews sought...to kill him, because he...said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God. Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do" (John 5:18-19). He spoke diligently of the Lord's commandments wherever He was, teaching the Law to His children. He fulfilled the whole law, "every whit pointing to that great and last sacrifice; [which] will be the Son of God, yea, infinite and eternal" (Alma 34:14).
The signs upon His hands were nail prints rather than phylacteries, and bound upon His head was a crown of thorns. The gate He entered was the gate of baptism, and He stands at the door to His home, a door written upon with His own blood. For He who brought our forefathers out of the captivity of Egypt also brought us out of the captivity of death and hell. Truly Christ could say, "I am the Lord your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God." And the response of the faithful people of His day, and of His followers today, remains, "Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One."