28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
Mark’s gospel account is rife with conflict. It seems as though Jesus can hardly turn a corner without being either tested by or culled into a dispute with someone. It is an atmosphere not all that different from most social media platforms today.
Jesus’ unconventional approaches at points do draw a curious eye. However, we would be naïve to assume that all this conflict and tension was stirred up by a single person—even if that person was “the Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1). Rather, tension was in the air.
Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, various factions within Judaism were vying for control of religious practice in Roman occupied Israel. While the Chief Priests and Herodians held control of the Temple, they were viewed with suspicion by the majority of Jewish people because of their associations with the Romans. The Sadducees, while not directly connected to the Temple, insisted that the proper locus for Jewish devotion to God remained in the Temple—even under Roman control. They also followed only the written books of the Law, which they often interpreted different from the Pharisees. The Pharisees disagreed with the Sadducees on many points, following a written and oral Law and studying God’s Word in synagogues, deemphasizing the role of the Temple.
Each group would have had scribes whose job it was to interpret law. However, these scribes were not the rabbis or priests in charge of the interpretation; they were more generally associated with the proclamation of the law for the group with which they were associated. And so the people often saw scribes as lacking in authority (Mark 1:22).
It is into this environment that Jesus is born; and it is in this environment that Jesus teaches.
In order to understand what’s going on in today’s pericope, therefore, it is important to identify both the scribes and the “them” of verse 28.
Although it would seem that scribes would have been likely in a variety of factions, throughout Mark’s gospel account they are associated as a part of the Pharisees (Mark 2:16; 7:1, 5) and working together with the chief priests (10:33; 11:18; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1, 31). On the other hand, “them” refers back to a group of Sadducees who began testing Jesus in Mark 12:18.
In contrast to the interlocutor of the same question in Matthew and Luke, one of the scribes approaches Jesus in Mark. And they only enter into conversation with him because they notice that he is already disputing with a group of Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27). In other words, they notice that they share a common political adversary and so they want to learn more. Specifically, the scribe wants to know where Jesus stands in relationship to that which is most central to their religious identity—the Law?
And, as it turns out, Jesus answers rightly (Mark 12:32).
In a world so overcome with supersessionist tendencies, particularly in light of this week’s deadly attack on a US synagogue in Pennsylvania, it is important to let that sink in. Jesus’ answer to the scribe’s question—what Christian churches across the world hail as the “Greatest Commandment” is the right answer for the Jewish scribe. To love God and to love neighbor are considered the greatest commandments in Judaism as well. They represent a summary of the Law.
Jesus may turn heads at other points. His lack of orthodoxy ultimately leads at least some scribes to collaborate in his execution; however, when it comes to the Law—when it comes to the core of religious belief, Jesus is incredibly Jewish. Which shouldn’t be so surprising, since he is, after all, a Jew.
What’s so remarkable about Jesus’ answer, then, is not how original or creative it is. It isn’t. What’s remarkable about Jesus’ answer is that in a context of conflict and tension, where people are constantly testing and disputing with one another, where lack of trust is common place and oppression and hardship continually push families to the brink, Jesus repeats the Jewish commandment to love your neighbor.
The scribes of the Pharisees know it’s the right answer. Jesus knows it’s the right answer. The crowds and disciples know it’s the right answer. The Sadducees still hanging around probably know it’s the right answer too. They all agree.
But then they go right back to disputing. Jesus himself proceeds to call the scribes out for hypocrisy in his very next breath (Mark 12:38-40). And not so surprisingly, it’s only a little while later that the scribes have joined forces with the chief priests and elders, plotting to arrest and kill Jesus (Mark 14:1).
Jesus and the scribes, the Pharisees and Sadducees, chief priests and elders, and everyone else, lived in a world rife with conflict. Tension filled the air. In that kind of explosive environment, it was easy to miss who their neighbors really were. Luke makes this point with the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), decidedly reminding us that our neighbors include even those who live across borders and overseas. But in the world of Mark’s gospel, it seems too much to even imagine loving and caring for those who are closest to one another as neighbors. And yet, this is needful too.
Whatever else we may disagree on (in Jesus’ day and our own), not only Jews and Christians, but every major religion of the world professes some version of this greatest commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself.
It’s the right answer. The trick and the challenge is in living it. For, in the end, whether in Jerusalem, Pittsburgh, or wherever you may happen to find yourself, our love of neighbor is how we are called live out our love for God.