I don’t think I am a bad person. I may not get along with everyone and often become the source of criticism because I ask questions that are hard to answer. I have a friend that is both caring and inquisitive. In my opinion, he listens to my rants and questions because he is too polite to tell me off. It is not a judgment of my self-worth or even my methods, but frustration with my methods. One of my favorite idioms is, “One good question is better than a hundred bad answers.” Therefore, I ask and sometimes my friend almost blows steam out of his ears in frustration. I ask not because there are good answers or even bad but to make my friend think, to challenge the norm, to overcome complacency in his own intellectual pursuits.
There seems to be an internal desire to set standards for good and bad. Good is determined by mostly external sources and the most common determination is the lack of bad. Sources such as laws, rules, culture, norms, and sometimes the perceived condemnation or acceptance of a close loved one. Every action is measured by the company we keep.
In my most recent foray into understanding the revealed intent of God for me, my focus has been on the words and actions of Jesus. My prime source of determination of good and bad is set by that singular man. He is the solid surface by which I set my level. I can find no better.
One of the interactions between Jesus and his historical culture is summed up by a question presented by a self-proclaimed culture measurer, “Of all the commandments, which is most important?” Mark 12:28-34 For any teacher or rabbi, it was an excellent question. It is the motive behind the question which draws my attention today. Why did he ask the question? What was his motive behind the question? What is the need that required satisfaction? If there is no motive, no need, why ask in the first place.
There are well over 600 commandments in the Old Testament Law. Each of these commandments was written to address practically every facet of Jewish life. The teachers had difficult times to keep up with every commandment, mandate, rule, and punishment. The question this teacher of the law presented was a very valid question.
Every action, thought, attitude, impression is metered by a need. Paired with every volitional act there is a twin need. There is a necessity, a reason for doing. The why of the act. We may well focus on the response of Jesus. I will save that response for another day. Never-the-less I need to understand the inquisitor and his motives. I want to step into the world of this teacher and understand what motivates, what empowers, what energizes this act of inquiry. Very seldom does an action have a singular motive. The motive of the questioner must be taken into the understanding of the answer from Jesus. I can quickly pick at the knot of understanding by examining the possible why of the question.
Looking at the context from Mark12:12-34, there are several groups confronting Jesus. First with the Pharisees and Herodians questioned about money to cast Jesus as a revolutionary against Rome. as. Then the Sadducees took their turn questioning Jesus on Marriage and the Resurrection. Each in turn tried to catch Jesus in a logical error. The Pharisees, the Herodians, and then the Sadducees all failed at their questioning. Each in turn was simply trying to trap Jesus in some heresy.
Most writers on this passage lump this lone teacher in with the other entrapment groups. The teacher questioner was trying to trap Jesus into saying something out of the norm. He was not trying to show the others up but was trying to be accepted by them. He took on this adversarial role to be accepted by the religious, legalistic, self-promoting, and judgmental upper-class religionist group. He was trying to be seen as part of a larger cultural social strata. That he deserved to be in their company. “I can join in and emulate your line of questioning and be as good as you.” A motive of acceptance of perceived superiors.
Secondly, perhaps this simple teacher thought he could do better than the other judgmental entrappers. Perhaps, part of the motivation of this Rabbi, this teacher of the law, was to show his hierarchal superiors he could do better. To state a question to demonstrate his superior intellect. An intellect that would reveal his current place in life did not restrict his upward mobility. To show he deserved to be among this upper class. If he could show them up he could raise his status in the religious hierarchy of the culture. If he could submit a question that was better formed, more effective, more thought-provoking than all the best religionist questions previously made he could show them up. “You guys all failed, now watch and learn.” Simply it was a motive of self-promotion. I can do better.
The third motive in this gamut of conversations could be a simple academic exercise. An earnest quest for knowledge and understanding. Teachers are always thirsty for knowledge, for new ideas, new insights, new questions, new conclusions. Here was this new rabbi proclaiming the Kingdom of God and the questioner wanted to soak it all in. A tell me more attitude from a sincere learner. “Rabbi, in your understanding of God, what do you place as more important than any other. I need to make note of these for my upcoming debates with my study group.” The motive of learning or self-actualization.
Another of the paramount motives a person can have is for a good self-image. It is self-awareness of where you fit. It may be judged by the external, but in reality, we are who we think we are. It is only the individual which can look deep within himself to see the good and the bad, the lovely and the ugly. You may call it honor, or reputation, or even “thine on-self be true.” It is a deeply personal thing that calls from our very soul. As David said, “Search me and know me.” This inquisitive questioner this interrogatory was simply asking for reinforcement of his own view of himself. “Jesus draw for me a line so I can compare my soul and spirit to your estimation of the hierarchy of good and bad”. The motive of self-worth
Fifth motive for this teacher is judgmentalism. Being a judge has always been seen as a very important place in society. Impartial, knowledgeable, just, and fair are all qualities of a judge. Here the inquisitor of the law was simply asking the question of the greatest commandment to set a measuring rod for his quest for impartiality. I have said to my children, “I don’t care what are the rules, just don’t change them mid-game.” Here the teacher of the law needed a stated expectation of goodness. And with that statement, he could count himself worthy to judge others. If I can meet your expectation of goodness, I can feel better about myself and can rightly judge everyone around me.” Judgmental qualifications as a motive.
Additionally, the motive could well be an effort to set for himself a line by which he would or could did not cross. To see himself as better than the other guy. I have heard it in the church, “At least I don’t steal from the offering plate.” It was a motive that was and is most selfish of all. Self-justification. I don’t need God or man to judge me. I can do what I will if I keep this one thing. “Show me the line by which I may justify myself.” Self-justification is a motivating factor.
There could have been many more motives. But every motive is driven by need. The question could have been motivated by the need to be accepted in a new and upwardly mobile religious group of Jesus. The crowds had become larger and larger. Miracles of bread and fish, of resurrections and water into wine. “I want to be a part of that.” “I want to be a friend of Jesus.” Every society, culture, or group has requirements for membership. The question could well be taken as a measuring rod for inclusion. He was posing the question needing an invitation to belong. “Tell me if I can join you in your quest of God. Give me an absolute measuring rod, so I may conform to your expectations and include me into your circle of friends.”The motivation of being part of something new and fresh. The unique motive.
Whether the reason for the question was to be acceptance of authority, self-promotion, intellectual appetite, appraisal of self-worth, qualification of credentials, a friend of Jesus, or a combination of two or more, I would submit it went deeper than all these motives. He was something special.
Had Jesus given an answer similar to those given to the other religious groups, it would have stopped there. Jesus saw beyond all the other possible motives and saw someone genially seeking God. In the Hebrew mindset, it was all about rules and commandments. When Jesus quoted from the Old Testament there was a mutual agreement. But look closely at this account as it continued.
Jesus made his statement. ‘Hear O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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. There is no commandment greater than these”.
In response, the teacher rephrased it to include something very important. He added, “these are more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The establishment, the religious culture, the other trapper groups based all their questions on hypothetical situations. Each question or hypothetical was to provide no out in the response. Each was dependent on outward acts and they could construe or twist into the alienation of a portion of the culture. To them, it was all about the action and not the motive. As long as you did a certain thing you could be seen as righteous.
The teacher of the Law concluded, it was the motive and not the action. All the actions of sacrifice, burnt offerings, all the things they did to justify themselves were not as important as the Love of God and the Love of man.
It was not actions that promoted acceptance by authority, it was not actions to promote self, it was not an intellectual exercise, it was not an assessment of self, it was not a qualification of duty, it was not even to be a friend of Jesus. None of these things mean anything without the love of God and of man. Hence, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
So why do I ask questions and sometimes make those who hear a little annoyed? Because I need them to come closer to God. To irritate them to a point of understanding, like the teacher of the law, it is about why you do more than what you do.