Mark 12:28-34

Jesus Engages with Scribes (1) – Ambivalent Engagement

Mark 12:28-34 – The First Commandment

28 One of the scribes who had been listening to those arguing with Jesus
came up to him.  
He had noticed how well Jesus had answered them,
and he asked him,
“Which commandment is the fundamental one of all of them?”

The scribe was obviously not a Sadducee since he dissociated himself from them. Probably he was a Pharisee, which would have explained his pleasure at Jesus’ answer.

From the context, it is difficult to determine whether the scribe’s question was a genuine one or a further effort to discredit Jesus. Jesus’ comment to him at the end of their interaction might indicate that Jesus seemed to receive his request positively. Among Pharisees themselves, debate continued constantly on the relative importance of different commandments. The rabbis had identified nearly seven hundred laws in the Scriptures. (Though this sounds a lot, it compares favourably with the two thousand found in the Catholic Church’s code of canonical law and the host of rubrics governing the celebration of sacraments.)

The question was the scribe’s, not Jesus’. Niceties of law did not interest Jesus. His answer ignored detail and moved to the motivation of all genuine law.

29 Jesus answered,
“The fundamental one is this,
‘Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord,
30 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’.
31 The second one is this,
‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.  
There is no other commandment greater than these.”

To the mind of Jesus the two commandments together constituted a single one. Love for God was worked out in practice in the area of interpersonal relations. It was precisely this practical love of neighbour – the authentic religious stance originally enshrined in the customs and institutions of Israel - that over time had tended to drain out of religious practice and institutions. Its absence was the basis of Jesus’ unrelenting critique and practical confrontation.

32 The scribe then said to him,
“How truly you have answered well, teacher,
that he is one and there is no one other than he. 
33 Loving him
with all your heart and with all your understanding and with all your strength,
and loving your neighbour as yourself,
far exceed all holocausts and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw how intelligently he had replied....

Jesus’ answer was neither new nor surprising. In many ways some of the best scribes among the Pharisees already gave similar assessments. The wisdom of this scribe would seem to have lain, not in his simple reiteration of Jesus’ words, but in his further comment about holocausts and sacrifices. In adding this he was showing the same sensitivity as Jesus. Jesus’ symbolic shutting down of temple activity, his cursing of the fruit-less fig tree, had been precisely because worship and practical love had become so separated. The tendency was not just Israel’s but, unfortunately, is endemic to humanity. 

Jesus was impressed by the scribe’s similar sentiment. Many Pharisees were critical of temple policy and politics, which was partly the reason for their focussing on moral traditions. (Their relative independence from the temple and its worship enabled them to hold Israel together after the temple’s destruction forty years later; whereas the priests disappeared from the scene altogether.)

... he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” 

Jesus’ commendation was encouraging but enigmatic. If he was not far from, he was not yet “in”. What was lacking? 

In Jesus’ mind, the Kingdom experience involved not only insight into human dignity and the practical consequence of relating to people in love but particularly the experience of the desire to live accordingly and the perception of its possibility: the subtle sense of being empowered by the spirit of God, whatever the cost. 

The scribe may have been operating still at the level of academic interest, the temptation of the legal academic.

And no one dared to question him any more.

All efforts to discredit or test Jesus had failed. The threatened power-brokers needed to regroup and plan again.

Next >> Mark 12:35-44