Thought for the day
There is a story told about an elderly Cistercian, who on being asked what he believed at that point in his life replied, “I believe more and more in less and less”! It is not as paradoxical as it seems. As we go on, the core dimension of the faith should stand out for us. As Erasmus wrote, the essentials are few but essential.
God, your love is always there ahead of us, even before we are aware of it. Help us, therefore, to love you by letting you love us first. May we love you in our neighbour in need. Amen.
Mark 12:28 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 neighbour 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 neighbour 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.
The question asked here is important for all believers. The concern for the core or centre of the faith is widespread in the New Testament: Jesus, Paul, James and John (see below). It is also a question today: what lies at the very heart of what we believe? A contemporary summary was once given by David Jenkins (the former bishop of Durham): there is God; God is as he is in Jesus; there is hope. Naturally, we would want (and need) to say more, but as a thumbnail sketch, it is not bad at all.
This story is also found in Matthew 22:34-40 and in Luke 10:25-28 (in a different context). In Luke, it is not Jesus but a lawyer who combines the citations from Deuteronomy and Leviticus.
Kind of writing
Technically, this is once again a chreia, this time in the form of a typical rab-binic question and answer dialogue. It comes as part of a series of disputes in Mark’s Gospel. The purposeful layout of Mark and his artistry may be seen in the chiastic structure:
A. Commendation + Question (Scribe)
B. Love of God and neighbour (Jesus)
B* Love of God and neighbour (Scribe)
A* Commendation (Jesus)
Old Testament background
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deut 6:4–5)
You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord. (Lev 19:18)
In Jewish tradition from the time of the Second Temple, there is a prayer known as the Shema Yisrael, from its first words in Hebrew meaning “hear, O Israel.” Its full form is based on Deut 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num 15:37-41. It is recited at least twice daily.
New Testament foreground
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:12–17)
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:22–27)
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Rom 13:8–10)
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (Gal 5:13–14)
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor 13:1–3)
Verse 28 Although as a whole the scribes are consistently hostile in Mark, this scribe reacts positively to Jesus and asks a sincere question. In this way, Mark avoids a blanket condemnation of Judaism. In philosophy and religion, the desire for a summary statement has often led to representative “epitome” pronouncements. A contemporary of Jesus, R. Hillel, was asked a similar question but he gave a reply which does not come from the Hebrew Bible: “Do not do to anyone else what is hateful to you” (cf. Tob 4:15, Mat 7:12). The question is subtle: not which commandment is first in a series, but which commandment is above all the other commandments. Mark portrays the Scribes mostly negatively, but here the Scribe is not only positive to Jesus but is Jesus positive to him.
Verses 29-30 Jesus begins his double reply by quoting the Shema. The citation is adjusted slightly to include “mind”, while the original has heart, soul and might. There is, however, no dividing up of the human being because it really means with your whole self. The addition of “mind” may reflect a concern for the reasonableness of faith. This is in contrast to 12:17 and the honour due to Caesar. The emperors did, of course, claim the respect due to God and God alone. There is another, Markan level to the response. This community confesses Jesus as Messiah and as Son of God. Nevertheless, the Christians do not set aside the monotheism of the mother religion nor do they have a different morality.
Verse 31 Only the latter part of Lev 18:19 is cited here. In its biblical context, neighbour meant one of the chosen people. However, in the Judaism of the time and in Jesus’ teaching it means anyone and everyone. The second part of the reply is a formal response to the opening question. The reply mirrors the two tablets of the Law: the duty to God and the duty to the neighbour.
Verse 32 This is the only time in Mark that one of the religious authorities agrees with Jesus. Teacher: in the disputes of Mark 12, those trying to trick Jesus also use this address (Mark 12:14, 19), but here it is a form of respect. The scribe then builds into his response a verse from Second Isaiah: Declare and present your case; let them take counsel together! Who told this long ago? Who declared it of old? Was it not I, the Lord? There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Saviour; there is no one besides me. (Is 45:21; cf. Ex 20:3 and Deut 4:35)
Verse 33 In his response, the scribe brings even more closely together the double commandment to love God and neighbour. Perhaps surprisingly, the scribe appends the prophetic critique of Temple worship, reflecting texts such as 1 Sam 15:22; Hos 6:6 and Mic 6: 6-8. This may reflect more the Markan critique of the Temple system, which is very evident in chs. 11-12. It may also reflect the desire for continuity in light of the destruction of the Temple.
Verse 34 This is the only use in the NT of the adverb nounechōs which means “with nous”, i.e. mindfully or wisely. Jesus approves of the scribe’s reformulation and expansion of his own reply. It is a little difficult to capture the tone of Jesus’ compliment, because to be “not far” means also not to be there just yet, just like Joseph of Arimathea (15:43). The final line closes the dispute sequence. In this sequence, the essential Markan theology has been presented: God alone is due honour; God is one and there is no other; this God has anointed Jesus as Messiah. The sequence of teachings may reflect the catechesis of early Christianity. From now on, it is Jesus who poses the questions.
This story is significant in Mark for the following reasons:
- It underlines the deep continuity between Judaism and The Way.
- Again, in continuity with the prophets, the Temple cult is not required after its destruction.
- God is one (a point not emphasised by Matthew and Luke); in a polytheistic world, this is vital point of continuity.
- Jesus is now shown as the master interpreter of Scripture.
- Jesus teaches no specific ethics in Mark, but rather a response in faith and love to the act of God.
Pointers for prayer
1. Today’s gospel brings us right to the heart of what a Christian life involves: love of God and of neighbour. Jesus tells us that having life both now and in the future is the fruit of living in a spirit of love. How have you experienced the power of love given, and received, as a source of life and vitality?
2. If you were asked what is most important in life, what would your answer be? Recall the experiences and relationships you have had. Which are the ones that you treasure most? What has particularly enriched your life? How would you encourage another person who asked you how s/he could live a full life?
3. Jesus praises the questioner as one who had answered wisely. Recall some of the wise people you have known, people who in their words and actions impressed you with their capacity to see and treasure what is important in life.
Lord our God, you are the one God and there is no other. Give us grace to hear and heed the great commandment of your kingdom, that we may love you with all our heart and our neighbour as ourselves. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.