The great commandment

The ancient notion that identity is communal is the background of Mark 12:28-34

March 11, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 12:28-34 

The ancient notion that identity is communal is the background of Mark 12:28-34

To be was to be part of a specific group. The group was present in the individual; the individual represented the group. A primary question was, “Am I faithful to my community?” To be in tension with one’s community was a major challenge to one’s own identity. To be cast out of a community created a crisis. This situation was quite different from our North American emphasis on individuality and on finding oneself.

Mark wrote about 70 CE after the fall of Jerusalem. With the temple destroyed, many Jewish communities asked, “What does it mean now to be Jewish? What is the core of Jewish identity?” In today’s text, Mark offers an answer to the Markan congregation.

The Markan congregation was a sect within Judaism with two distinguishing characteristics:

(1) The congregation believed that the ministry of Jesus, an apocalyptic prophet, signaled that the transition was underway from the present evil age to the coming Realm of God. This transition would be complete only when Jesus returned at the apocalypse.

(2) The Realm of God included the reunion of Jewish and gentile communities. The congregation foreshadowed this reunion by welcoming gentiles into the community (e.g. Mark 13:10). Because they believed the apocalypse would occur soon, the congregation did not require gentiles to engage in the full range of Jewish practice (e.g. Mark 7:1-23).

Receiving gentiles as full-standing members of the community was problematic to some traditional Jewish groups Some such folk believed that Mark’s congregation had become unfaithful to the point that the congregation was no longer truly Jewish. Consequently, tension developed between the two groups; traditional synagogues may have planned disciplinary action against members of the Markan congregation (e.g. Mark 13:9-13). I believe that many members of the Markan community faced an identity crisis: Are we truly Jewish? Do we have a place we belong?

While Mark generally portrays the scribes negatively, Mark begins today’s passage with a scribe who respects the way in which Jesus interacts with other Jewish leaders (Mark 12:28a). The scribes were interpreters of Torah. Mark thus signals the reader that a learned representative of Judaism initiates this discussion and takes a positive role in it.

The question the scribe asks, “Which commandment is the first of all?” is essentially the question, “What is essential to Jewish identity?” This question had been discussed by the Jewish community for a long time, but its importance was magnified with the destruction of the temple.

In Mark 12:29-31 Jesus responds by combining Deuteronomy 6:4-5 with Leviticus 19:18. In its context in Deuteronomy, the former emphasizes that the God of Israel is alone sovereign of the world and that God acts with complete integrity. In its context in Leviticus, the latter does not point to  individual self-love (as when people often say, “You have to love yourself”) but has a communal dimension relating to kin: you shall love your neighbor (those who are outside your family) even as you love your own kin. In both contexts, love is less a feeling and more a decision to act for the good of the other-and-community.

Mark uses the figure of the scribe to show that some members of the Jewish establishment agreed with Jesus (Mark 12:32-33). Indeed, other Jewish teachers about the time of Jesus or slightly later made similar formulations (e.g. Philo, Every Good Man is Free 83-85; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15:375; Testament of Issachar, 7:6).

Mark often polemicizes against Jewish leaders and what Mark regards as violations of the spirit of Jewish practice. By means of the prophetic gesture of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, Mark interpreted the destruction of the temple as divine condemnation on the corruption of those associated with the temple (Mark 11:15-19).

In Mark 12:33b, Mark makes the theological judgment that while the temple and sacrifice may have played an important role in Judaism in an earlier era, those things are not essential to Jewish identity. Indeed, with the temple destroyed, the community can no longer participate in burnt offering and sacrifice. Nevertheless, the congregation can be authentically Jewish by practicing the monotheism of the God of Israel and by loving neighbors.

According to Mark, not only does the scribe answer wisely, but the scribe’s agreement with Jesus means that the scribe is “not far from the [realm] of God” (Mark 12:34a). The reference to “not far” could be simply a reference to time, that is, the scribe is only a short time away from being included in the realm. However, given that the scribe has not expressly believed in the gospel in the way that Mark formulates it (Mark 1:14-15), it is more likely that the scribe still needs to believe in the Markan way and to join the community of Jesus to be part included in the Realm.

This passage assures the Markan community that they are, indeed, faithful to the Jewish tradition as they are part of the movement from the present world to the Realm of God. Jewish people live in this way without the temple. Gentiles can live in this way without being initiated fully into Judaism. This passage is intended to reinforce the congregation’s confidence that they are truly faithful, even in the face of challenges from other Jewish people.

Many congregations’ today face issues of identity — questions and uncertainties similar to those before Mark’s community in arenas as diverse and far reaching as approaches to worship, historic and contemporary options for belief, positions issues, and how to relate to other religions.

If the core of Christian identity is love for God and neighbor, what are the implications for such areas of church life? The preacher might go a step further and use this passage as a starting point for reflecting on whether, today, these qualities are the essentials for being a Christian congregation or whether we might formulate them differently.