Commentary on Mark 12:28-34
There is no limit to the amount of work to be done in the church in correcting anti-Old Testament bias.
The habits of disdain toward Judaism and the faith of Israel run very deep, almost as old as the church itself, and will not be corrected easily. But preachers can and should take every opportunity to inculcate a better take on the Hebrew Scriptures within the Christian canon.
Today’s Gospel reading is especially useful toward that end. How many of us have heard the old canard, “the Old Testament god is a god of wrath but the New Testament God is a God of love”? (For that matter, how many of us have inadvertently preached it by exalting Jesus’ “inclusive” ministry over against the allegedly “exclusive” religion of Israel?) Jesus’ exchange with the scribe, however, upends all this pernicious nonsense. Their conversation takes place within the conversation that is the Old Testament — not outside of it or at its expense.
Furthermore, it is a conversation within the Pentateuch. Christians tend to prefer the prophets, with their ringing critiques of “formal” or “external” worship practices, which seem to justify post-Jesus desertion of Israel’s particular form of devotion and also to promote a “religion of the heart” that seems much more progressive and humane than animal sacrifice.
We gravitate toward passages like Isaiah 1:11, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats” and Amos 5:21-22, “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.” The whole of Israel’s early tradition, complete with tabernacle and all kinds of offerings and purity laws, seems to be dismissed easily by Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Obviously, we infer, Jesus agrees.
To be sure, Jesus gets his best moves from Isaiah. But that doesn’t imply abandonment of the tradition embedded in the Pentateuch. When the scribe — an expert in the written texts of Israel’s faith — tries to sort out the “most important” commandment from all the others, Jesus doesn’t turn to the prophets for an answer. The answer about the commandments lies right in the midst of all the detailed statutes concerning Israel’s common life.
Jesus first invokes the Shema, “Hear, O Israel,” from Deuteronomy 6:4–5. It is structured like the First Commandment (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5): first, an assertion of who God is and to whom God is (that is to Israel); then, a command issued on the basis of that identity, to love God with all one’s being — God and no other. It’s no accident this episode in Mark follows so closely on Jesus’ invocation of God’s speech from the burning bush to Moses in Exodus 3 (Mark 12:26).
And then, issuing out of this primary identity of God as Israel’s God and the command to love this God alone, Jesus appends the corresponding neighbor-ethic from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’ teaching about human community is really nothing other than an extended commentary on this verse — as, indeed, is the book of Leviticus itself. It’s fine to say you love your neighbor as yourself, but what does that look like in practice? Both Jesus and Leviticus answer that question at some length.
Differences between Jesus and Leviticus on, for example, the cleanness/uncleanness of foods in Mark 7 may distract Gentile-thinking Christians from their more fundamental agreement — hence the need for extra caution here. The discussion with the scribe in Mark 12 is an extension of the dispute with the Pharisees in Mark 7 over “the commandment of God” verses “the tradition of men.” There too Jesus invoked Pentateuchal commands as his ethical baseline, specifically Exodus on the care of parents. And what Jesus teaches in both Mark 7 and Mark 12 is linked, again, to God speaking from the burning bush: He who is the God of the living, not the dead.
Leviticus is the book of life for the living, whose rules shield human beings from deterioration and death. Likewise, Deuteronomy: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). There is certainly a critique of a certain strain of Israel’s thinking in this encounter — as we today are accustomed to critiquing aspects of Christian thought we find faulty! But it is by no means a blanket condemnation of Israel’s faith or a fresh start with a “god of love.” The continuity greatly outweighs the discontinuity.
The scribe gets it — remarkably enough. As Israel, he hears that God is one, he hears Jesus’ invocation of these central, critical, indispensable confessions of Israel’s faith. And hearing, he affirms and agrees. So much so that Jesus need offer no correction. Only: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Not far — but not yet there. What remains? For all intents and purposes, at this point in the Gospel, all that remains is Jesus’ passion. Not an overthrowing of Israel’s faith, but an unanticipated fulfillment of it. Love of God and love of neighbor take their deepest expression in shed blood, the blood that is life itself. Leviticus could have told you that.