As Jesus teaches in the temple courts, his opponents confront him with a series of questions. Jesus had enraged the temple authorities when he cleansed the Court of the Gentiles from merchandizers. They questioned his authority, his allegiances, and his theology. These hostile questions intended to subvert his popularity and/or endanger his life.
Now, however, a scribe—like one of those who questioned him in Mark 11:27—approaches him with some respect. While Matthew (22:35) portrays this incident as the result of a Pharisaic conspiracy to test Jesus once again, Mark is more ambiguous. Mark’s scribe was impressed with how well Jesus handled the succession of questions and consequently wonders how Jesus might answer the question that rabbis discussed among themselves: “Of all the commandments, which is the first of all?” Which commandment, he asks, ranks as “numero uno”! Which commandment is the most important?
Given that the rabbis counted 613 imperatives within the Torah, it is not surprising that there would be some discussion about which was the most important or which had priority. Allen Black (College Press NIV Commentary on Mark, 216) reminds us that many, including Jesus’ contemporary in Alexandria Philo (Who is the Heir of Divine Things, 168; Special Laws, 2.63), considered the ten commandments a summary of the Torah divided between responsibilities toward God (“piety”) and responsibilities toward people (“justice”). This two-fold categorization fits the answer Jesus himself gave: love God and love your neighbor.
Jesus identifies two commands—out of a host present in the Torah—as the first and second. “Love God” is the “first of all,” that is, it has priority, but the “second” is “love your neighbor.” The first quotes the great Shema (Hebrew for “hear”) of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 which was repeated twice daily by devout Jews in the Greco-Roman period (Allen cites Letter to Aristeas, 160; Jubilees 6:14). The second quotes Leviticus 19:18.
It seems rather amazing that Jesus could lift two isolated commands out of the Torah and identify them as first and second. The identification of the Shema as first is more understandable as its narrative function in Deuteronomy is the fountainhead of Israel’s response to God’s deliverance and land-grant recounted in Deuteronomy 1-5. Since God has graced Israel, Israel returns that grace with loving gratitude.
But the identification of Leviticus 19:18 appears more arbitrary. It seems to appear as one command in a list of others within the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18-20). Some suggest that Leviticus 19:18 functions as a summary statement in the Holiness Code, but this is not apparent. Nevertheless, Jesus recognizes its theological importance.
What enables Jesus to so clearly and succinctly identify these two texts—among many others that could have been chosen—as the first and second commandments? It is apparent that Jesus does not read Scripture as a flat text where every command is as equally important as every other command. Rather, he reads the text in a hierarchical fashion. That is, he recognizes levels of priority and importance. I suggest he reads in a narratival way such that the story (plot) of God moves us to recognize “love you neighbor” as the second greatest command. Some commands are more fundamental than others.
The scribe recognizes Jesus’ point. He repeats what Jesus quoted—and thus the narrative underscores the unparalleled significance of theses two imperatives—and also interprets the significance of prioritizing these two commands. In effect, Jesus has prioritized these two commands, according to the scribe, over “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” In other words, Jesus has prioritized loving God and neighbor over the temple, its sacrifices and their atoning significance. This does not mean that sacrifices are unimportant but rather that they are less important that what some might have thought. The two greatest commands are love God and love neighbor–and we must be careful that we don’t respond with “but….” [fill in the blank with an "important" command].
There is a tradition with the history of Israel which prioritized the sacrifices so that if one comes to the temple and offers their sacrifices, then God is pleased with them (despite their lives). This is the safety of the temple to which Jesus alluded when he cleansed the Temple as Jesus quoted from Jeremiah’s Temple sermon (Jeremiah 7). Some believed that despite their adulteries and social injustice (how they treated the poor, widows and orphans) their sacrifices were accepted because the temple represented God’s gracious presence. The second command, love your neighbor, does not sanction such an interpretation of the temple.
What makes one more fundamental than another? How are these two imperatives (“love God” and “love your neighbor”) more important than sacrifices? Perhaps we might see in “love God and love your neighbor” an act of sacrifice itself. It is the gift of ourselves to God (our whole body, soul and strength) and, in turn, to others. We are the sacrifices. This is more important than any ritual which expresses that devotion.
It reminds us that God loves mercy more than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6) or Micah’s declaration of what the Lord requires more than a thousand rams, that is, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). We are the sacrifices which God requires (cf. Psalm 40:6-8).
The context in which Mark places this exchange underscores the importance of “love your neighbor” (quoted twice). It appears between the exploitation the money-changers practiced in the temple courts (Mark 11:15-16) for which Jesus judges the temple complex and Jesus’ accusation that the wealthy temple authorities (“scribes”) exploit widows (Mark 12:38-40). Leviticus 19:18—love your neighbor—falls between the prohibition against defrauding (robbing) your neighbor (19:13) and honest business practices (19:35). Economic justice functions prominently in the last part of the Holiness Code.
Given the temple context, controversy and practices in Mark 11-12 as well as Jesus seemingly gratuitious comment about widows, “love your neighbor” has added significance. It is, it seems, a further judgment against the temple authorities. The scribe did not ask Jesus for the second commandment. He only inquired about what was “first of all.” Jesus volunteered the second and his reference to the social injustice of the scribes later in this chapter is a narrative clue for Mark’s readers as to why.
This may explain Jesus’ rather curious (backhanded?) compliment to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Jesus notes that the scribe is “thoughful” (nounechos, only here in the NT)–he has got the right mind (nous) about it, but does he practice what he knows (loving God with soul and strength?)? Jesus did not invite the scribe to follow him and he did not say he was a kingdom participant. He still seems at a distance though near. Perhaps the scribe’s involvement in the temple complex was why, though near, he was not yet a Jesus-follower.
Whatever we make of Jesus’ “compliment,” the scribe correctly affirmed kingdom priorities. The kingdom ethic is to love God and love our neighbor. It is that simple though it is far from simple; easy to grasp perhaps, but difficult to live. The kingdom is rooted, grounded and expressed in love—God’s love for us, our love for God and our love for each other.
It is rather sobering, however, to consider whether, possibly like the scribe, we are “not far from the kingdom of God.” Is it possible that we might affirm but not practice the two greatest commands? Is it possible that we might know better but we don’t do better? Is it possible that we know about God but we don’t know God as people who love our neighbors?
Is it possible, I wonder, whether we know the commandments but we are so emeshed in the structures of oppression and injustice (much like the scribes in the temple; like those living under Jim Crow or in southern slave states) that we don’t even recognize that we fail to love our neighbors even as we insist that we do?
May God have mercy on us all.