Commentary on Mark 12:28-34
The setting for the gospel text for Pentecost 22, November 1 (also All Saints Day), within the gospel of Mark is crucial to understanding of Mark 12:28-34.
The teaching of Jesus in Jerusalem is confrontational. He enters the temple three times (11:11, 15, 27), and each time the encounter with the present temple practice becomes more and more intense. The cursing of the fig tree occurs (11:12-14) between the first and second visit. The follow up on this event with the parable or the sign of the fig tree’s significance (11:20-26) occurs between the second and third visit to the temple.
As Jesus enters the temple for the third time, the question of his authority/power (Greek: exousia) is raised. Jesus confounds his hearers by asking a counter question: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (11:30). Jesus’ hearers know they have been caught by either their denial or affirmation and so give a dishonest answer: “We do not know” (11:35). Jesus has gained the upper hand and responds: “Neither will I tell you by what authority/power (Greek: exousia) I am doing these things” (11:33).
Mark 12:1-12 continues Jesus’ teaching the religious leaders by setting the next stage with a parable. The parable of the wicked tenants is a graphic clue as to how confrontational Jesus’ teaching will be. The succession of the owner’s slaves to collect the share of the produce of the vineyard meets with beatings, insults and even death. Finally the owner sends “a son, the beloved” (12:6), thinking they will respect him. Knowing he is the heir they kill him and throw him out of the vineyard.
As a side note before we go any further, the identity of the owner’s son is the same as the voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 1:11), and transfiguration, “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Mark 9:7). The identity of the owner as God and the son as Jesus in the parable is unmistakable.
Following the parable, Jesus asks of his hearers, “What will the owner of the vineyard do?”, and answers the question himself, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (12:9). Jesus confirms the judgment of the parable from Psalm 118:22: “Have you not read this scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (12:10-11).
Recognizing that Jesus’ parable and the Psalm have expressed the word of God the evangelist concludes: “When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away” (12:12).
All of this leads to our text as one by one the religious leaders come forth to put Jesus to the test with a series of questions: the Pharisees and Herodians (12:13-17); the Sadducees (12:18-27); and one of the scribes (12:28-34). Finally Jesus will turn tables on all of them and confound them with his question (12:35-37).
The Pharisees and Herodians are two groups that have nothing to do with each other politically and religiously. These unlikely foes join forces in an attempt to entrap Jesus with a question about taxes to the emperor. The Saducees likewise ask a question concerning the resurrection, even when they don’t believe in the resurrection. Finally a scribe comes the closest to an honest question concerning what is first and foremost in the Law: “Which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28). Jesus answers the question not only with the first commandment, citing Deuteronomy 6:4-5, but a second: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus 19:18. The scribe acknowledges Jesus’ response as true and is commended by Jesus with the words: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” The engagement in the temple is over and the evangelist Mark reports: “After that no one dared to ask him any question” (12:34).
We begin the specific focus on our text, Mark 12:28-34, from this last verse. The previous encounters with Jesus in his temple teaching have left the religious leaders, Pharisees and Saducees, and political sympathizers, Herodians, at a loss to entrap Jesus by their stealth. Jesus has silenced them and no one dares to put forth further questions.
The one person who breaks the pattern is the scribe of our text. He appears to be in on the wit and wisdom of Jesus as he responds to Jesus’ turning the table on his questioners: “and seeing that he answered them well (Pharisees, Herodians, Saducees), he asked him” (12:28). The question of the scribe concerning the first commandment leads Jesus’ reciting of the Shema (Hebrew: hear) which are the words that are still recited daily by persons of the Jewish faith. The text in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 is expanded by Jesus to include “with all your mind” (12:30). Jesus adds to his response by citing a second that is like this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” from Leviticus 19:18.
The beauty of our text is in the paraphrasing by the scribe of the words of the Law which Jesus has cited, adding, “this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (12:33). (See our note on this verse in our study of Hebrews 9:11-14, the companion text for this Sunday.) The scribe gets it and Jesus recognizes this as he commends and encourages him: “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34).
If the scribe is not far, what will bring him closer or even into the kingdom of God? What if we are this scribe? Do you think the evangelist might have a catechetical purpose in our text by drawing us into this role of an observant bystander? Perhaps we not far from the truth either. The scribe, or rather us, have heard the teachings of Jesus responding one by one to the challenges, false as they may be, but we have heard something in these conflict laden encounters that has peaked our interest. How close are we now? Do we hear the master teacher bringing forth the truth of God’s Law of love to God and love to the neighbor?
In these two laws is the truth of freedom. Freedom not to attempt to be our own god but the call to worship the true God with all that God has given us to love God. Likewise a second gift is the call to live in freedom to love the other as God in Christ has loved us. In both commandments, we hear Jesus teaching us a selfless love. What a gift of word and deed. This is to live as God intended us to live in relationship with the God of all creation and the person whom God has created in God’s own image.