Commentary on Mark 12:28-34
Mark 12 sets the reader up for a continuation of the rhetorical sparring match among Jesus and the religious authorities that began in Mark 11:27. The Pharisees and Herodians have questioned Jesus about paying taxes, and the Sadducees have questioned Jesus about the resurrection. The “us vs. them” dynamics are palpable. These dynamics, however, lead many preachers to regard the scribe of Mark 12 as “another one of them,” doubting him before he speaks to Jesus. We too are quick to judge. We too are tempted by the “us versus them” dynamics.
This scribe embodies courage in the midst of what seems to be a conflict between Jesus and other Jews. The Gospels present Jesus as the protagonist and entice the reader to think of Jesus as the one who always makes sense. This scribe invites us to take a step back from our positions of privilege. We, who know how the story turns out, are often quick to determine the “us” and “them”—the protagonists and the antagonists—placing Jesus on one side of the conversation and those who question him on the other.
Context matters here, both in terms of where this text is situated in Mark and in terms of the context of Judea-Palestine in the first century. The “us” and the “them” many preachers identify are not so far apart as one might imagine. Jesus’s answer to the scribe—the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)—was the bedrock of Jewish faith and practice.1 While there was diversity in belief among first-century Jewish communities, the questions in Mark 12:13-28 are fundamental questions that marked Jewish identity and practice, especially at the time the Gospel of Mark was written, likely just before or just after the Jewish-Roman War (66-70 CE):
- Should Jewish people pay taxes to Rome? (Mark 12:13-17; See Josephus A.J. 18.1-10)
- What should one expect to happen in the resurrection? (Mark 12:18-27; See Josephus C. Ap. 2.218; Philo, Cher. 114)
- What is the most important commandment? (Mark 12:28-34).
While Mark 12 presents the first question as a trap by the Pharisees and the Herodians and the second as a non-starter from the Sadducees, all of these questions are fundamental. They are particularly fundamental to those who are trying to figure out who this Jesus guy is, whose side he is on, and what his goal is. He has power, but how will he use it? Situating Jesus within these dynamics among the Jewish groups and in relationship to Rome is key to understanding who Jesus is.
The scribe frustrates the “us versus them” dynamics. He approaches Jesus not in order to test him, but because he saw that Jesus answered the others well (Mark 12:28). The scribe asks the question that strikes the core of what it means to be faithful to God and God’s commands: Which command is the most important? Jesus answers with the Shema and extends the conversation by supplying the second greatest commandment (Leviticus 19:18).
Jesus’s response corresponds very closely to the Septuagint with a few slight additions and changes.2 My translation below maps on to some of the sound and word repetitions in Greek, designed to draw the audience’s attention to the repetitions in the text:
You shall love the LORD the God of you
With the whole heart of you
And the whole soul of you
And the whole strength of you
Jesus also supplies the second greatest commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30, Leviticus 19:18). The connection between these commands draws together both the first and second tables of the Law, which relate to one’s relationship with God and one’s relationship with others, respectively.
The understanding that these commands travel together appears elsewhere in Jewish literature. Philo, in his commentary on the Ten Commandments, argues that those who only love God or only love others are “half-perfect in virtue; for those only are perfect who have a good reputation in both points of loving God and humans” (Decal. 108-110). To follow only the “love God” commands is to only half-follow the Ten Commandments. In order to love God properly, one must properly love their neighbors, even the neighbors with whom one disagrees.
Jesus adds the second command, extending the exchange by going a step beyond the scribe’s question, and the scribe responds affirmatively:
To love him with the whole heart
And with the whole understanding
And with the whole strength
And to the neighbor as oneself
Are even more crucial than all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
The scribe extends the meaning of loving God with one’s mind to loving God with what one’s mind does. How and what do we think of our neighbors? How and what do we think of our neighbors who disagree with us? Just as loving our neighbors is part of loving God, I would argue that how—and what—we think about our neighbors shapes our relationship with God as well. Conforming our thoughts to the love of God and neighbor, in turn, shapes how we live as followers of Jesus.
This week there is a particular invitation to focus on how our faith draws us into relationship with God and with each other. One might ask: What is fundamental to our faith, our relationship to God, and our relationship to others? We might also ask how Jesus shows up in the midst of our conflicts and our us-groups and them-groups; perhaps, as in Mark 12:28-34, in pursuing these questions, we are not far from the Kin-dom of God.
- See Adele Yarboro Collins, Mark, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 577.
- Mark’s Jesus adds the word “mind” (διανοίας/dianoias) and uses a synonym for the LXX’s word for strength (LXX: δυνάμεώς/dunameōs; Mark 12:30 uses ἰσχυός/ischuos). While the former has a more flexible definition in terms of physical, metaphorical, or spiritual properties, the latter also can also entail the same.