This is the thirty-seventh installment, comprising Act 5, Scene 8, chapter 12:28-34, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-sixth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 8: 12:28-34
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" 29 Jesus answered, "The first is, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' 31 The second is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." 32 Then the scribe said to him, "You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that "he is one, and besides him there is no other'; 33 and "to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,' and "to love one's neighbor as oneself,'—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." After that no one dared to ask him any question. (NRSV)
Act 5, Scene 8 does not have the same tension as Act 5, Scene 6 or Scene 7, though it emerges directly from the previous scene with the Sadducees A scribe who has been listening to the disputation between Jesus and the Sadducees has approved of Jesus’ response to them. Scribes were common in the ancient near east and could belong to one of the religious parties of the day, work for one of them, or work independently. They were not mere copyists, but often they wrote documents and were in the ancient Jewish context interpreters of the Law. We are not certain if this scribe is associated with the Sadducees or the Pharisees, some other party, or was independent. We do know from Mark, however, that he appreciated Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees regarding the resurrection, which indicates that he was not associated with them since they rejected the resurrection.
The scribe asks Jesus another question, but it does not seem to be a question designed to test or trap Jesus as were the previous questions. He simply asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28). Jesus answers in a straightforward manner, offering the Shema: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’” (12:29-30). This commandment is an obligation for Israel to recite and contains within it the basic belief in God’s unity (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). To this Jesus adds a second commandment, taken from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (12:31). It is derived from the second part of the verse in Leviticus, which reads in whole, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus adds, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (12:31).
Important to keep in mind with these verses, and in examining Jesus’ mission as a whole, is the fact that however difficult the tensions are between Jesus and the Jewish parties of his day, they share a foundational belief in the authority of Scripture and basic understandings about what is enjoined by Scripture. That is, Mark has allowed free rein for the dramatic tension amongst Jesus and his foes, which reflects the reality of the historical situation certainly, but the tension is not because they do not share beliefs in common, such as God’s oneness, the truth of Scripture, and the need to care for neighbor; tension exists precisely because they share beliefs in all of these things, but differ over Jesus’ authority as the Messiah and so his authority to teach them or bring these things in the Scriptures to completion. The Jewish Scriptures are shared by all of these groups and so is their love of God. The Jews are not Jesus’ enemies – they are his neighbors and kinsmen.
When the scribe responds to Jesus, saying, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one's neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:32-33), there is a genuine meeting of the heart and mind between them, because they are brothers in faith. Jesus has done nothing but exegete the word of God shared in common and so too has the scribe in return. He has acknowledged that at the heart of the Law of God is love of neighbor and God and that sacrifices pale in comparison as, for instance, Hosea 6:6 states: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” The scribe is neither snide nor sarcastic; he has found a kindred spirit in Jesus. Jesus’ response to the scribe is equally welcoming, for he acknowledges that the scribe has “answered wisely” and says to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34).
It is a breath of fresh air, this meeting of the minds, in the midst of conflict after conflict that has marked Jesus’ time in Jerusalem from the beginning of Act 5. Mark has subtly alerted us that however deep the problems are between Jesus and the authorities, there is a ground floor level on which they share so much in common. What Jesus says to the scribe at the end, though, tells us that the one thing that separates them might still exist: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” What is still needed from the scribe to go the whole way to the kingdom? He is not far, but how can he cross the last step of the bridge? It is only implied, but it seems that that the scribe’s step toward Jesus is Mark’s way of indicating that metaphorically, with a move to consider Jesus, he has moved to accepting the kingdom. We do not know if the scribe does so or not, for Mark says, “After that no one dared to ask him any question” (12:34). But why will no one ask him a question, not even the scribe? Is it because they have misread him and are surprised by the ordinariness of his answer from the scriptures? Or do they sense that he is asking something more from him? Or do they want to hear even more from him?This moment of teaching has resulted in a rare time of contemplation in Mark's Gospel.
John W. Martens
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