Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 12:28-34 provides a stark contrast to the stories that surround it.

November 4, 2012

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Commentary on Mark 12:28-34 

Mark 12:28-34 provides a stark contrast to the stories that surround it.

Here, a scribe emerges from among his colleagues, who are repeatedly berated by Jesus, as an example of a successful inquirer who has a chance to find himself in the Kingdom of God.  

Setting this text in its literary context will help clarify the dynamics at play in the particular pericope. Mark 11:1-11 narrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Immediately following, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree intercalated with the cleansing of the temple — one of Mark’s classic “sandwiches.” The cursing of the tree helps interpret Jesus’ view of the temple. Jesus, upon entry into Jerusalem, immediately undermines the validity of the Temple, the center of religious and political power in Judaea.

It may not be surprising, then, that following directly after this is a series of interactions between Jesus and various leaders and groups of leaders from ancient Judaism. In 11:27-33, Jesus’ authority is questioned. Jesus however offers a conundrum of a response that leads the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders rendered ignorant; they answer Jesus’ question about the origin of John’s baptism with: “we do not know.”

Jesus then tells the parable of the wicked tenants (12:1-12), which fits the tenor of the cursing the temple a few paragraphs earlier. This quasi-allegory leaves Jesus’ fate (death) as the result of the rejection of Jewish leadership. In 12:13-17 it is the Pharisees and Herodians who attempt to trap Jesus. In 12:18-27 the Sadducees question Jesus about the resurrection. Chapter 12 ends (verses 38-40) with a final screed from Jesus about the danger the scribes pose. 

In this context, then, our pericope (12:28-34) finds itself in a rather hostile setting. It is surrounded by stories of antagonism between Jesus and many different segments of ancient Jewish leadership. The scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians shuffle on and off the stage and consistently attempt to trap or antagonize Jesus.

In 28-34, however, only one individual approaches Jesus. He had overheard the disputes and saw that Jesus answered well. How Mark describes the scribe’s interest is vague, however. What has been so good about Jesus’ answers is that he hasn’t really answered much at all! Jesus has either wiggled out of a direct answer (11:27-33), answered ambiguously (12:13-17), or responded cryptically (12:18-27). It is not clear whether it is the content of Jesus’ answers that the scribe finds to be good, or whether it is Jesus’ crafty ability to parry his opponents’ thrusts. 

In the version of this story in both Matthew and Luke’s gospel, the scribe becomes a teacher, and he is there to “test” Jesus. His role in later tradition is thus quickly turned into antagonism. Thus this individual character stands out not only in its immediate context, but in the synoptic tradition in general. 

The scribe’s question assumes that some of the commandments are to be given more weight than others. The language used could simply connote the first commandment, but the context seems to indicate clearly that what’s at issue is prominence. Although asked for the most prominent, Jesus answers with two: first, a version of the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-5, then, Leviticus 19:18.

The scribe agrees, summarizes the two laws, and then states that these together are better than whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. Mark tells us that the scribe had answered intelligently or wisely. This provides an interesting contrast to the scribe’s assessment of Jesus’ answers as merely good. In any event, Mark ends the story by saying that the Kingdom of God is not far from this scribe. 

The central dynamic of this story has to do with a reading of a tradition and how individuals and groups ally themselves vis-à-vis different interpretations of a tradition. The series of stories in Mark 11-12 demonstrate the variety within Judaism in the first century. Scholars now generally prefer to talk of Judaisms, not Judaism, during Jesus’ day. What can we glean here from how Mark approaches a question about tradition?

First, when embracing a tradition as old and multi-faceted as was Judaism in the first century, one must make some choices. To embrace it all simultaneously would be like trying to drink from a wide-open fire hose. Embedded in the controversy through Mark 11-12 are some fundamental disagreements, especially on issues of eschatology and resurrection.

The very question that the scribe asks Jesus, to prioritize the commandments, would seem to fit comfortably with those segments of Judaism based on an on-going oral interpretation of the Law, such as the Pharisees were known to engage in. That the question comes from a scribe, however, might be surprising. Mark’s Jesus, here, and early Christianity more broadly, were in keeping with the methods of the day as they selectively engaged Jewish tradition. 

Second, the way Mark’s Jesus embraces the tradition repudiates part of that very tradition. In a way not discordant with Matthew’s beatitudes, Jesus deems an inner disposition as more important than outward shows of religiosity. If taken as an all-encompassing critique of Judaism, this would be completely unfair. One must point out, however, that such critique can find a home within its very tradition itself.

For instance, Hosea 6:6 talks about God’s desire for mercy instead of sacrifice and for people to know God rather than burnt offerings. One could also point to Micah 6:6-8, where the prophet asks with what he should come before the Lord. Burnt offerings, young calves, rivers of oil, even a first born child are not what God requires. God, Micah insists, simply wants justice, kindness, and a humble relationship with God.

This dynamic: tradition vs. new interpretations is not one that the church shed after its early decades. It continues to be of central importance and crops up in congregations in any variety of ways: in aesthetics (worship styles, architecture); in theology (metaphors for God), and in ecclesiology (questions of ordination, ecumenism). 

What Mark models here is a Jesus who is firmly planted in a tradition, but yet one who authoritatively engages and interprets that tradition in light of new circumstances. In this particular instance, the watershed is a crucified messiah who ushers in a Kingdom about to deluge humanity. Mark’s Jesus reads the tradition and prioritizes it all according to two simple, yet impossible principles: God and neighbor. Perhaps this is a lens through which the tradition should still be read today.