Biblical Analysis: Jesus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)

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Throughout Jesus' time in Jerusalem thus far, his experiences have been characterized by conflict: he is challenged or questioned in a hostile manner by Temple authorities and he responds harshly. Now, however, we have a situation where Jesus is questioned in a far more neutral manner. 

Jesus on Love & God

The contrast between the earlier incidents and this one makes the relatively neutral question appear almost sympathetic. Mark may have constructed the situation in such a way because the answer, generally known as Jesus' teaching about the "Great Commandment," would have appeared inappropriate in a hostile setting.

Jewish law contains over six hundred different regulations and it was common at the time for scholars and priests to try to distill them down into fewer, more fundamental principles. The famed Hillel, for example, is quoted as having said "What you hate for yourself, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law; the rest is commentary. Go and learn." Note that Jesus isn't asked *if he can summarize the law into a single commandment; instead, the scribe already assumes he can and merely wants to know what it is.

It is interesting that Jesus' reply does not come from any of the actual laws themselves - not even from the Ten Commandments. Instead, it comes from before the law, the opening of the daily Jewish prayer found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5. The second commandment in turn comes from Leviticus 19:18.

Jesus' answer emphasizes the sovereignty of God over all humanity - possibly a reflection of the fact that Mark's audience lived in a Hellenized environment where polytheism was a live possibility. What Jesus instructs as the "first of all commandments" is not simply a recommendation that humans love God, but a command that we do so. It's an order, a law, an absolute requirement which, at least in later Christian context, is necessary in order to go to heaven rather than hell.

Is it even coherent, however, to think of "love" as something that can be commanded, regardless of the promised penalties should one fail? Love can certainly be encouraged, promoted, or rewarded, but to command love as a divine requirement and punish for failure strikes me as unreasonable. The same can be said for the second commandment according to which we are supposed to love our neighbors.

A great deal of Christian exegesis has been involved with trying to determine who is meant to be one's "neighbor." Is it merely those around you? Is it those with whom you have some sort of relationship? Or is it all of humanity? Christians have disagreed on the answer to this, but the general consensus today argues for "neighbor" being interpreted as all of humanity.

If you love everyone equally with no discrimination, however, the very basis for love would seem to be undermined. We're not talking about treating everyone with some minimum of civility and respect, after all. We're talking about "loving" everyone in exactly the same manner. Christians argue that this is the radical message of their god, but one can legitimately ask if it is even coherent first.

Mark 12:28-34

28 And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? 29 And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: 30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. 31 And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater.
32 And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he: 33 And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. 34 And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question.

The scribe's response to Jesus' answer about the Greatest Commandment reinforces the impression that the original question was not meant to be hostile or a trap, as was the case with previous encounters. It also lays the groundwork for further conflicts between Jews and Christians.

He agrees that what Jesus said is truth and repeats the answer in a manner that also interprets it, first insisting that there are no gods other than God (which, again, would have been appropriate for a Hellenized audience) and then insisting that this is far more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices made right there in the Temple where he works.

Now, it shouldn't be assumed that Mark intended this an attack on Judaism or that he wanted his audience of Christian Jews to feel morally superior to Jews who performed sacrifices. The idea that burnt offerings might be an inferior way of honoring God, even though the law demands them, had long been discussed in Judaism and can even be found in Hosea:

"For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings." (6:6)

The scribe's comment here thus might not have been meant as anti-Jewish; on the other hand, it does come right after some very hostile encounters between Jesus and the Temple authorities. On the basis of that, more negative intentions cannot be entirely ruled out.

Even allowing for a very generous interpretation, however, the fact remains that later Christians lacked the background and experiences necessary to interpret the above without hostility. This passage was destined to become one of those used by anti-Semitic Christians to justify their feelings of superiority and their argument that Judaism have been superceded by Christianity - after all, a single Christian's love of God is worth more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices of the Jews.

Because of the scribe's answer, Jesus tells him that he is "not far" from the Kingdom of Heaven. What exactly does he mean here? Is the scribe close to understanding the truth about Jesus? Is the scribe close to a physical Kingdom of God? What would he need to do or believe to get all the way?

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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Biblical Analysis: Jesus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)." Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, Cline, Austin. (2021, February 8). Biblical Analysis: Jesus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34). Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Biblical Analysis: Jesus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34)." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).