The average Christian’s perspective on first century Jews, particularly their leaders — high priests, scribes, the Sanhedrin — is understandably derived from the New Testament.
While the New Testament is an important source of information, it obviously can skew one’s perspective because the Jewish leaders are usually portrayed as the opponents of Jesus. In Mark 12:28-34 we get a delightful exception to this trend.
A scribe overhears Jesus in debate with the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27) and is impressed by his deft handling of a tricky question. So he poses his own question to Jesus, but unlike so many others recounted in the gospels, this question is sincere. This scribe is not seeking to entrap Jesus, but to learn from him. His approach is that of a fellow rabbi, not a hostile opponent.
Rabbis seem to have revelled in debate. According to a tradition that may go back to the 2nd century CE, the Torah contained 613 commandments. There was thus ample material for debate, particularly when one tried to prioritize these laws. That is the thrust of the scribe’s question in Mark 12:28. Given the multiplicity of laws, how could one possibly remember them and apply them appropriately? If one could prioritize them, i.e., identify one command as supreme, then there might be hope of obeying the whole. It was a question of first principles.
Jesus didn’t hesitate but immediately responded with a citation of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, known as the Shema (the first Hebrew word in vs. 4). The Shema was a liturgical keystone for Judaism, both a prayer and an affirmation of faith. It affirmed the oneness of God and Israel’s obligation to love and obey God. So in a flash Jesus answers the question with a familiar and beloved commandment, a response that might well have been given by some other rabbis.
But unexpectedly, and going beyond the scribe’s question, Jesus also gives the second most important commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This commandment might have been subsumed in the first commandment — surely loving God entails loving one’s neighbor — but Jesus is not content with love of neighbor as an implicit addendum. He gives it an explicit billing, second only to the Shema. Then, in a redundant restatement, Jesus claims no other commandment is greater than these.
Jesus will have nothing to do with a piety that has only a Godward dimension. His twofold response to the question about the “Greatest Commandment” rules out any religious practice that neglects human obligations. It is precisely the pseudo-piety that 1 John 4:20 warns against: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” So the second commandment follows inexorably on the first.
The scribe affirms and reiterates Jesus’ answer. The only substantive thing that the scribe adds is a comparison between cultic acts of sacrifice and the love of God and neighbor. This is a common prophetic critique (Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-22; Micah 6:6-8; Isaiah 1:12-17). Our cultic, liturgical, even sacramental actions must be accompanied by love of neighbor.
A powerful, if extreme, cinematic portrayal of this occurs in the movie “The Godfather.” When Vito Corleone dies and Michael realizes that he must take over the crime family, he attends the baptism of his newborn nephew to establish an alibi. As Michael repeats the words spoken to him by the priest — “I renounce Satan and all his works” — five separate murders are simultaneously being carried at his orders to establish him as the new boss of the family. Michael’s participation in the sacrament of baptism is a grotesque sham in view of his savagery toward human beings. Few church-going Christians commit murder, but do we ever maintain a ritual charade toward God while we act hatefully toward our neighbors?
The final remark in the exchange is Jesus’ commendation of the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Along with the many Gospel accounts of hostile encounters between Jesus and Jewish leaders, let us not forget the genuine piety of this scribe whom Jesus approves.
Two very brief episodes follow: (1) the final interrogation story in the series from Mark 11:27 to 12:37, and (2) Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes’ pretentious piety. This is the rule in the Gospel’s characterization of the scribes, to which the episode in Mark 12:28-34 is a welcome exception.
The final scene before the apocalyptic discourse in chapter 13 occurs opposite the treasury. Wealthy people depositing large sums are contrasted with a poor widow who contributes two small copper coins. It follows naturally on the condemnation of the scribes’ ostentatious practices.
Human beings seek recognition. If we give generously, we want it to be acknowledged … preferably publically. There are many philanthropic forms of recognition: published lists of donors, plaques displaying the names of contributors, special banquets for particularly generous donors, buildings and programs named after benefactors, etc. A few years ago a prominent talk show host gave a huge gift to a political organization and used his show as the venue for the announcement. Anonymous giving of major gifts seems to be the exception.
I remember as a child attending a Christian summer camp at which a special fund-raising service was a regular feature. Persons would fill out a pledge card, promising to give X number of dollars to the camp in the coming year. The cards would be collected and taken forward to the camp patriarch, who stood at a microphone and read off the amounts. The givers were not named, but there was inevitably an especially exuberant “Amen” when the amount was unusually high. Even as a pre-teen I remember thinking that the scene was rather tawdry.
Numerous studies have indicated that persons in middle and lower income brackets give a higher percentage of their income to charity. Although one can point to exceptions, as a general rule, possessing wealth does not mean that one will be proportionately generous with that wealth. Indeed, the Jewish and Christian traditions often associate piety with poverty. Persons who have little in material goods are aware of their dependence on God and the fact that they should be generous even with what little they have.
The widow’s stewardship is commendable quite apart from the amount of her gift, which was undoubtedly dwarfed by most other gifts given that day. According to Jesus’ mode of accounting, the magnitude of the gift is determined by the motivation behind the gift. It’s not the dollar amount that counts, but the devotion amount. Jesus commends the pensioner who gives out of poverty, not the millionaire whose name is on a building.
PRAYER OF THE DAYLord of love, you have taught us that love is your greatest commandment. Teach us to love as unconditionally as you love us. Amen.
HYMNS Christ is made the sure foundation ELW 645, H82 518, NCH 400, UMH 559 Blessing and Honor ELW 854
CHORAL How Great are Thy Wonders, George Schumann