Mark 12:28-34. The greatest commandment(s).

“And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions. “

 

Mark has been showing us Jesus in conflict with the Jewish authorities. Jesus has come to the Temple as the heir of the place, and has begun to assert his authority. Pretenders to his authority have come to him, group by group, and tried to tear him from his throne. The chief priests, elders, and scribes came with a question about authority. The Pharisees and Herodians came with a question about taxes. The Sadducees came with a question about the resurrection. And group by group, Jesus has defeated them all. Now a single individual comes to Jesus with another question- the last one anybody will dare to ask him.

 1. This man is a scribe. Who are the scribes?

 2. Others have asked Jesus questions to trap him. Why did this man ask his question?

 3. What is the scribe’s question about? Is it a much debated point among the scribes?

 4. What does Jesus mean by his answer? Where is he getting his answer from? Is it something revolutionary? Why does it have two parts?

 5. Is the scribe’s rejoinder surprising? Bear in mind where this all takes place. In response, Jesus says that the scribe is “not far from” the kingdom of God. What does he mean?

 6. Where does this passage sit in the flow of Mark’s Gospel? Why does Mark tell us that nobody dared ask Jesus anything else?

 7. What should we take from this passage to apply to ourselves?

 

1. This man is a scribe. Who are the scribes?

The scribes are a group who enjoyed authority in Israel. Essentially, they are a set of scholars. Specifically, they are legal scholars, experts in the tradition of Jewish jurisprudence. They are something like a professional guild, something like our lawyers, and something like our academics. Scribes were not the exclusive property of Israel- other ancient peoples had them for the transmission of religious, legal, and historical documents. If there had been no copyists or teachers, then ancient texts would have been lost. Professional, well-trained, scribes were essential.

Jewish scribes, however, were particularly concerned with the scriptures. And those who did the work on the transmission of the text of the law and the prophets and other writings, quickly became authorities when it came to questions about what the texts said. The best-known scribe from the Old Testament is Ezra, who was also a priest and a powerful religious leader. In Jesus’ time, the scribes were the acknowledged experts on law and theology in Israel, trained in the principles of OT law, and in the techniques of interpreting it and debating it. They were thought of as the authoritative voice of what God says about a particular matter. If you had a legal question, then you’d go and ask a scribe to solve it for you. The scribe would be able to quote to you all the relevant parts of the law, and then what a dozen rabbis have said about the matter, and what other rabbis have said about the comments of the first rabbis, ad infinitum.

The scribes weren’t a sect, so much as a profession. Being a scribe didn’t mean that you couldn’t also be a Sadducee, or a Pharisee, or an Essene, or anything else. Each of those groups would probably have had their own “in-house” scribes. But the Scribes as a group in Jesus’ day were dominated by Pharisees. Both Mark and Luke talk about “Scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16, Acts 23:9), and all the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself) feel it appropriate to talk of “scribes and Pharisees”, as though the two groups go together. There is a natural fit between the scribal profession, and the Pharisaic concern for the law. And it is unsurprising to find that the scribes (by-and-large) come down in support of the Pharisees.

It is also relevant to note that the scribes were supported by rich patrons. They were full-time students and teachers of the law, not holding down other jobs to earn money. They were financially dependent on the wealthy, which might have bearing on their allegiance to the status-quo.

 

2. Others have asked Jesus questions to trap him. Why does this man ask Jesus a question?

Is this man an enemy of Jesus; or is he neutral, even friendly? Matthew tells us that the scribe was one of the Pharisees, that he was in cahoots with a larger group of Pharisees, and that he asked his question in order to test Jesus, having just heard Jesus silence the Sadducees (Matthew 22:34-35). Mark simply tells us that the scribe asks his question because he has just heard Jesus answer other questions well. Mark and Matthew are not contradicting one another, but it is nevertheless very difficult to arrive at a settled view on whether or not this scribe is hostile.

When Matthew says that the scribe was was “testing” Jesus, are we to give that word the full conceptual freight it could carry from the Old Testament, where we read of Israel putting God to the test? Or do we read it to mean that the scribe was simply asking to see how Jesus would answer, “testing” him in that sense; which is perhaps not a good way to behave, but is certainly not malicious?

Again, when Mark tells us that the scribe asked because he had heard Jesus answer the Sadducees well, we can imagine two very different interpretations. Perhaps the scribe heard the answers Jesus had given to the Sadducees, immediately learned to value Jesus’ wisdom, and therefore sought his help to answer a hard question. On the other hand, maybe the scribe heard Jesus answer the Sadducees, was perturbed that the Sadducees seemed to have failed in their attempt to unseat Jesus, and so jumped in with a question of his own.

And again, when the scribe says to Jesus, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him” , do we read this as an acknowledgement of Jesus authority- after all, he calls Jesus “Teacher”, and admits that Jesus is right? Or is it a patronising and self-serving remark, repeating Jesus’ statement and then making a little addition of his own, as if to say “Yes, your teaching is coming along nicely. Keep at it, and you could do very well indeed. Of course, you haven’t quite understood this little point…”?

Yet again, when Jesus tells the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom of heaven, is that supposed to be a commendation or a rebuke?

Still on the same conundrum, when Mark tells us that the scribe answered wisely, surely that is a commendation. But when Mark tells us that nobody dared to ask any more questions, doesn’t that imply that they were scared off by what Jesus had just said to the scribe?

These are not easy questions, and perhaps the text simply reflects the ambiguity of the situation. If we take it that the scribe was listening to Jesus dispute with the Sadducees, then it makes sense that he was both pleased and disappointed with Jesus’ answer. On the one hand, he is a member of groups hostile to Jesus, and would like to see Jesus humiliated. But on the other hand, the Sadducees have been trying to make Jesus look silly with a question about the resurrection- a question that could easily be turned on the Pharisees- and the scribe would have been impressed at the authoritative way in which Jesus answered.

 

3. What is the scribe’s question about? Is it a much debated point among the scribes?

The scribe asks about the greatest commandment. This is a massive massive debate among the scribes. The Old Testament is full of commandments, perhaps most famously “The Ten Commandments”, written on tablets of stone by the finger of God, and given to Moses. But the scribes had identified 613 separate commands in the law books of the Old Testament. Some of these laws were reckoned weighty, and others of them light. Some were important and central, and others carried less significance. This scribe wants to know which of the laws is the greatest.

Now some folk have read this as a fairly bizarre request, as though the scribe wanted Jesus to construct a “Top 10” list of the best and most important laws, and read out the number one. But if we take a look at the scribal debates, we can see that this wasn’t quite the case. The desire of the scribes wasn’t to produce a list of 613 commandments in rank order, just for the sake of it. Rather, the search of the scribes was for one law to bind all the others together- one law which was so big and weighty and profound that it encompassed the whole law- all the other commands being merely outworkings of this one great law. The scribes were looking for an organising principle, for one big simple law to structure all the other laws and tell them how to behave in any given situation.

This man was an expert in legal ethics, and it worried him that his ethics seemed to be a long list of do-s and don’t-s. It seemed arbitrary, and he wanted a coherent system. He could read laws that told him to build a parapet round the roof of his house, to avoid shellfish, not to reap his field up to the edges or to glean it after reaping, and not to wear clothes of mixed fibres. But at first glance, there doesn’t seem much those laws have in common. And the scribe knew that God is not random; that God has good reasons for everything he does and everything he says. He wanted to know why he shouldn’t reap his fields up to the edge, why he shouldn’t wear clothes of mixed fibres. He wanted to know God’s reasons, to know if there was one great concern, from which all these various laws sprang. He was not suggesting that the lesser laws could be ignored as long as the other, more important, ones were kept. Rather, he was asking for Jesus to tell him what was the fundamental purpose and character of the law.

Hillel, the famous rabbi, had already given his answer, saying (to a Gentile who apparently challenged him to summarise the whole law while standing on one leg!), “What you hate for yourself, do not do for your neighbour: This is the whole law; the rest is commentary; go and learn.” Hillel’s answer had evidently failed to settle the debate.

This wasn’t a merely academic question. We can easily think of real-life situations in which such an understanding would have been very useful. Last week, we took a quick look at the laws concerning levirate marriage- which make it plain that if an Israelite’s brother died childless, then the man was expected to marry the widow left by his dead brother and to raise up a son for the dead man. That law is drawn from many places, but is spelled out in Deuteronomy 25. In Leviticus 18, however, among other commands concerning marriage, we can read a prohibition on a man marrying his wife’s sister as another wife, while his wife still lived.

It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage a situation where those two laws clashed. Such cases might have been rare, but they were certainly possible. Imagine a small isolated community out in the Israelite sticks. There are only two families with young children in the place, and those families grow up as close friends of one another. One family has two boys, and the other family has two girls, and the children are all happy playmates together. When they grow up, the boys work on the family farm, and the girls also stay put, living in their father’s house. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the time comes to think of marriage, the two families intermarry, twice. Each brother marries one of the sisters. But then tragedy strikes. One of the brothers is involved in an accident on the farm, and is killed. He dies childless. What should the remaining brother do now?

If he looks to Deut 25, he can see that it is his duty to marry his brother’s wife and raise up a son for his brother. But if he looks to Lev 18, he is forbidden from marrying his wife’s sister, or any close relative of his wife. The problem is that in this case, his brother’s wife and his wife’s sister are the same woman. He’s got to break the law in order to obey it. The question is- which of the two laws should he obey?

What he really needs to know is which of the laws is more important. On what principles are they based? What ideals are they trying to protect? Which is more centrally connected to the most important things? Is there one law which best captures the biggest most important idea in the whole law? If there is one great governing principle, to which all the individual commands are subservient, then it might help him to find a path through this sort of moral maze. People would come to the scribes with this sort of question, and the scribes therefore debated how to answer.

 

4. What does Jesus mean by his answer? Where is he getting his answer from? Is it something revolutionary? Why does it have two parts?

Jesus says that the greatest law, the thing that the law is really all about, is this: Love God. God is one, and his people should love him with a whole heart. Everything they have should be given to loving God. Heart, soul, mind, strength- everything. Sure, not all the knotty questions will melt away in the light of this principle, but many of them will.

In his answer, Jesus is quoting words from the Old Testament which would be very familiar indeed to any Jew. They are taken from Deuteronomy 6 where Moses addresses the people, saying “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 might”.

Those verses from Deuteronomy are from what was known as the “Shema”, from the Hebrew for “hear”. Faithful Jews would recite the Shema daily. It didn’t render the rest of the law impotent or unnecessary, but was part of a longer instruction to remember God, and never to forget all the things he’d done for them and said to them.

The second command Jesus adds is drawn from Leviticus 19:18, again from Moses, and again about love; You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.”

It is evident from the context of Leviticus that this law is meant to be a summary-command. It comes at the close of a set of other laws which deal particularly with how Israelites are to love their neighbours. These laws are interpolated with the phrase, “I am the Lord”, to indicate that in keeping the law, a faithful Israelite was behaving in a Godlike manner. Israelites should leave gleanings in their fields, shouldn’t steal or lie, should show mercy to the helpless, should ensure justice is done in the law courts without partiality, and should keep themselves from harbouring vengeance; because that is what God is like.

In giving these commands as the answer to the scribal debate, Jesus isn’t teaching anything revolutionary, but he is teaching something very penetrating. God is central, and the law is a reflection of God’s character. And so the greatest commandment is that we should love God, and the second is that we should love our neighbours. The second will inevitably flow out of the first.

 

5. Is the scribe’s rejoinder surprising? Bear in mind where this all takes place. In response, Jesus says that the scribe is “not far from” the kingdom of God. What does he mean?

We are already aware that this scribe could well be different from the others who have questioned Jesus. In his reply, he becomes more different still. He calls Jesus “Teacher”, which (depending on his tone and the circumstances) could mean that he accepts Jesus’ authority and esteems his wisdom. The Pharisees and Sadducees have already addressed Jesus by this title, but it is clear that they didn’t mean it seriously. The scribe also says that Jesus is right, and that he teaches truly- sentiments that flout the received wisdom of the great and the good in Israel, however patronising they might be.

But just look at what he goes on to say: “and to love… is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This is a seriously subversive statement. The scribe is standing in the Temple courts. All around him there is the smell of blood and burnt animals. Thousands of people come here every day to make sacrifices to God. But this man says that obedience to the commandments- in this case, to love God and to love your neighbour- is better than sacrifice. And he says it right in the heart of the sacrificial system.

Jesus saw that the scribe’s answer was wise, and commented that the scribe was not far from the kingdom of God. This scribe has “got” stuff which the great authorities have no chance of getting. He is willing to consider that Jesus might be right. He sees the bankruptcy of the official way into the kingdom touted by the official Jews.

The scribe might not be “in” the kingdom- he doesn’t yet seem to see that Jesus is the Messiah. He’s not like others, who came seeking forgiveness, and left full of joy that they had found it. But he’s a scribe who doesn’t dismiss Jesus out of hand, and he’s a scribe who is ready to recognise that wholehearted love for God matters more than any of the Temple ritual.

 

6. Where does this passage sit in the flow of Mark’s Gospel? Why does Mark tell us that nobody dared ask Jesus anything else?

This is the last question Mark tells us about. And he wants to be sure that we know why. It isn’t that lots of people asked Jesus questions, and Mark has picked a few representative ones for our instruction, and this happens to be the last of them. Mark tells us about this question last of all, because it was the very last; and it was the very last because it fits in that position. The point made by all the questions, collectively, is that Jesus is truly the Lord of the Temple. All his enemies come to knock him down, and they all fail. Now, finally, a man comes who ought to be an enemy- he’s a scribe- a member of a profession more likely to be on the side of the Pharisees than standing with Jesus. But instead of this man coming with yet another entirely hostile question, we see that even Jesus’ enemies are being impressed by his wisdom. Even a scribe begins to bow the knee to Jesus, and is brought near to the kingdom.

Mark tells us that nobody dared to ask Jesus anything else to underline that point. Jesus’ enemies are vanquished utterly. They have no more shots to fire. They’re spent. This man was the last of them, and he wasn’t even a full-blooded enemy. The tactic of trying to alienate the crowd from Jesus by making him look foolish has failed miserably. Far from Jesus losing support, he has gained support, and gained it from those who would be his natural antagonists. The enemies are cowering in their trenches, afraid to peek over the parapet.

 

7. What should we take from this passage to apply to ourselves?

We should certainly read the passage in context- all too often we take a passage in isolation and look at it as a single tree, failing to spot that it is actually part of a wood, and that we need to see the whole wood. Here, we need to see that Jesus is Lord, and that his enemies are hopeless and doomed to failure.

But on the other hand, we wouldn’t want to spend so much effort trying to see the shape of the whole wood that we fail to recognise that it is made up of trees. We can usefully meditate on the way Jesus does summarise the law for us.

Two brief thoughts:

Firstly, it is a convicting thing to read Jesus’ words here. Which of us loves God like this? With our whole hearts, with all our souls, with every last brain cell we possess, with every ounce of strength? Is every thought we have captive to God’s glory? Do we spend our energy and time for God’s kingdom? Do we think often on God’s character and perfections?

And which of us loves his neighbour as himself? We are fallen, selfish, creatures. I can’t imagine what it would be like to enter into somebody else’s thoughts and feelings so completely that I genuinely loved them as much as I love myself. When I walk into a situation, I think first of myself, my desires and emotions; and only then (if then) do I consider those of others. We need to repent of our disobedience.

Secondly, it is a cliché in Christian circles to set the law up in opposition to love- to argue that love is what matters, and that the law somehow hampers love, that the law is restrictive. But that isn’t how Jesus thought of the law. He thought that love and the law went hand in hand. He could summarise all the law under the commands about love. If we truly want to love God with everything we have, if we want, Christ-like, to love God with all we have, then we need to look to the law to show us how to do it. If we want to love our neighbours properly, then how should we go about it? The law tells us. We shouldn’t think of the law as a set of chains to chafe and weigh us down; but as wings to set us free to fly. We can give thanks that we have a saviour who will change us and make us more like himself. And we can look forward to life in a city where everyone really does love God, and love his neighbour as himself.

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