Great Commandment

This exchange between Jesus and a friendly scribe concerning the greatest of commandments comes amid the temple debates in the final week of the Gospel.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 22, 2020

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Commentary on Mark 12:28-44

This exchange between Jesus and a friendly scribe concerning the greatest of commandments comes amid the temple debates in the final week of the Gospel.

Jesus’ mission in Galilee has now brought him to the center of the Jewish world.

The tension began when Jesus cleansed the temple in a prophetic act of protest. Where before, in his Galilean ministry, he removed barriers that isolated those individuals excluded for reasons of uncleanness (Mark 1:23, 26, 27, 42; 5:12, 25; 7:5, 25, etc.), he now brings his message and his accusation to the center of the Jewish world, cleansing the “Holy Place” that is the very criterion of the holy and unclean. For God’s house is to be “for all peoples.”

His action prompts the officials to take action against him (Mark 11:18). However, that effort proves more difficult than anticipated, as he has found favor with the crowds. In the short term, different official factions attempt to eliminate the crowd support through efforts to “trap him in what he said.” In the long term, they will recruit Judas to their cause.

So far, two representative attempts have been made. The Pharisees have joined with the Herodians, the coalition that began the offensive against Jesus, to “destroy” him (Mark 3:6). Their presence here, now with a question about taxation, brings their complaint forward to the present moment. The Sadducees join in from another direction. Defenders of the patriarchal traditions protective of status and property, they attempt ridicule. The attempt fails.

A friendly scribe

Now a scribe comes forward. Up to now, the scribes have consistently been the face of the opposition party in Mark. Since each party has its scribes, their mention helped Mark’s narrative bring continuity to the otherwise discrete groups, Pharisees and Sanhedrin, Galilee and Jerusalem. Shortly after this moment, Jesus will excoriate the scribes, accusing them of devouring “widows’ houses” (Mark 12:40). But this scribe is different. He appears to be authentically friendly, and not stereotypically hostile.

And yet, the scribe, though friendly, still speaks from the opposing camp. For that very reason, his testimony has particular value. His is not a trick question intended to trap Jesus, like those previous. He simply offers approval of Jesus’ answer as faithful to their common Jewish tradition. This has merit insofar as it counters the expected charge that Jesus, in his prophetic assault upon the Temple and its personnel, is heretical, outside the tradition. No, he is launching his charges from within that tradition. As prophetic, it has its own legitimacy.

The greatest of the commandments

As is so well known, Jesus’ answer combines two passages from the Old Testament. Combining passages is a common procedure for Mark (1:2-3, 11; 11:17), and so one suspects his authorial hand here.1

However, this combination should not be too surprising, in that it repeats the arrangement of the Ten Commandments, where statutes concerning Israel’s relationship to God (Exodus 20:4-11) are followed by those concerning the neighbor (Exodus 20:12-17)—however one’s particular tradition might number them. Which is to say, the combination is not original but is embedded in the very foundation of the Ten Commandments. Nevertheless, it is clear that Jesus insists on this combination. One is reminded of his summary of the Commandments, when addressing the rich man in Mark 10:19. There, he manages to list only those that involve the neighbor.

Citing the tradition: Two key passages

The two passages cited by Jesus were well-known. Deuteronomy 6:4 is the Shema, so called after its first words—Shema Yisrael, “Hear O Israel.” Even today this is the centerpiece of morning and evening prayer for the devout Jew. It is the origin of the mezuzah and the tefillin—the scroll posted on the doorpost and the scripture in a black leather pouch worn during prayers. It affirms uncompromising devotion to God.

The second allusion is to Leviticus 19. This chapter is very similar to the Decalogues of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, though it has its own ritual moments as well, as is proper to a Levitical text. The pertinent verse, Leviticus 19:18, speaks of love of neighbor. But it might be useful to know the context in which it mentions that topic—the need to exact revenge: “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.” The issue is how to act with love in situations of conflict. And that is the situation now.

More than burnt offerings and sacrifices

In his approving statement, the scribe takes the matter further. After a summary repetition of Jesus’ answer, he adds, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:33). Jesus has not mentioned the cultic offerings. This is the scribe’s contribution. Evans notes: “His comment is a remarkable admission, suggesting that Jesus’ teaching potentially renders the temple activities of the priests redundant. As such, in the Markan context it represents one more criticism of the temple establishment.”2

Finally, some possible preaching points:

  • In affirming love of neighbor, Jesus is also saying something about love of God. Does it complete love of God? Does it validate it? How is the biblical God one who is identified as favoring the vulnerable?
  • Endorsing the scribe’s response, Jesus also echoes certain prophetic views (Hosea 6:6). The valid expression of faith in the act of worship is qualified by love of neighbor. What is the relationship? How is worship seen to be incomplete without justice, without love?
  • Jesus is affirmed as a faithful Jew. Prophetic action is a part of the practice of Jesus and his followers.


  1. Adele Yarbro Collins. Mark: A Commentary. (Fortress, 2007), 566.
  2. Craig A. Evans. Mark 8:27-16:20. Word Biblical Commentary, V. 34b. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001), 262.


Lord of love, you have taught us that love is your greatest commandment. Teach us to love as unconditionally as you love us. Amen.


Christ is made the sure foundation   ELW 645, GG 394, H82 518, NCH 400, UMH 559
Blessing and Honor   ELW 854, GG 369


How Great are Thy Wonders, George Schumann