The First Commandment - Mark 12:28-34

Gospel: Mark 12:28-44

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.

This week we jump from the end of chapter ten to most of the way through chapter 12, missing sixty verses, because Mark doesn't fit the church calendar we use. I understand that it makes sense to have the entry into Jerusalem read in Lent, but it means that now, in November, we miss the lead up to an important text in Mark. We lose all the context.

Look at what has happened preceding this week. Jesus has been teaching the upside down power pyramid, the non hierarchy of power in the kingdom. (See here and here.) Then he enters the temple, in Mark 11:1-11. He enters Jerusalem on the colt of an ass; the entry of a peaceful king. He cleanses the temple; when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. (11:18-19) He attacks the hierarchy, and elite, in his teaching. When they seek to attack him, he turns the tables and wins the argument. We see a Jesus who is in control of the debate. Only then do we come to the reading for this week.

All the events I described are in the brief, almost terse, text of Mark, but it creates for me a picture of intense argument. By chance I found a description by Robin Meyers, which wonderfully sums up the feel of the text.

By the time we reach the 12th chapter of Mark, Jesus finds himself in the middle of a kind of theological cross-examination free-for-all. Priests, scribes, elders and other assorted defenders of the letter of the law are swarming all over him in a frenzy of entrapment.

How different then, is this week's story! The scribe sees that Jesus answers well. We depart from the frenzy to a little reflective pool of genuine discussion. We see that even some of the establishment is beginning to recognize Jesus! The scribe asks his own question, genuinely interested in what Jesus has to say.

Of course, Mark also uses the dialogue to emphasise his theological message. So, the scribe affirms Jesus' answer, and elaborates upon it- "this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." The emphasis is reinforced as Jesus then affirms the scribe.

But in the drama of Mark, we see the recognition and delight of 'fellow feeling.' The power of the non-hierarchical kingdom and community is on display. After that no one dared to ask him any question. And nobody does; there are no more questions in Mark. His authority is complete, so now they will kill him.

Meyers reads what I call "the drama" differently, and is worth reading.

Given the key position of this text in the gospel, we expect the words of Jesus it to be important, even a key teaching. They are. When I first read the text I thought, "What more can I say. This is obvious!"

It's not obvious, really. If there is one 'first commandment,' why does Jesus state the second: The second is this, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself?" The scribe does not point out that Jesus has answered the question, but then cribbed by adding more. He agrees with what Jesus has done. Bill Loader says citing the second command, Jesus is making a profound theological move which seriously defines the first command and reveals his theology. The God to be obeyed is the God of love and compassion and, by implication, that understanding will determine what loving God and keeping God's commandments means. There is no room for a tension or opposition between the two, no divided loyalties. Where love and law conflict, law gives way, or, better, love always goes beyond and, in that sense, fulfils the law. It controls law and not vice versa.

The scribe says, "Amen!" to this.

Bruce Epperly expresses this in another way.

The gospel passage clearly challenges the commonly-held belief that our love should be directed to the creator rather than the creature. Instead, healthy spirituality invites us to love the creator by loving the creatures. When we love one another, the love we share radiates across the universe and becomes our gift to God. This is the heart of theocentric ethics: by our love and care for others, we bring beauty not only to our neighbor, but also to God.

His article continues with an endorsement of the wholeness of the Jesus restatement of the Shema.

Mark 12 also presents us with a holistic theology - we are called to love God with our whole being, heart, mind, and strength. While our age, maturity, natural gifts, personality type, gender, and so on, shape how we love God, each of us is called to love God with our mind as well as heart. This is good news for both "thinkers" and "feelers" and an invitation to spiritual practices that embrace all the senses and ways of encountering the world.

But this beauty and wholeness always faces the test of the second commandment.

As Dorothy Day put it "I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least."
Cited by Lindy Black

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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