This coming Sunday is the 31st Sunday in Year B. Our gospel is taken from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus is asked which of the commandments is the first and greatest: 28 One of the scribes…asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” The response is very familiar to Christians: 29 Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! 30 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.
Our story falls within a series of conversations between Jesus and various leaders residing in Jerusalem, which began in Mark 11:27. This was the final discussion initiated by one of these leaders, since “no one dared to ask him any question” after this encounter (cf. Mark 12:34):
- Question about authority from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders (11:27-33)
- Parable about abusive treatment of authorities (12:1-12)
- Question about taxes from Pharisees and Herodians (12:13-17)
- Question about the resurrection from Sadducees (12:18-27)
- Question about the greatest law from a scribe (12:28-34)
- Question about the Davidic ancestry of the Messiah raised by Jesus (12:35-37)
The scribe’s question in our text is not posed “to test” Jesus as in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28. The question is, in fact, a familiar one from Jewish tradition: “Is there a way of summarizing the commandments?”
Throughout Mark’s Gospel, the scribes were always evaluating Jesus’ activities. They judged Jesus theologically, charging him with “blasphemy” because he forgave someone’s sins (2:7); they evaluated Jesus’ eating company (2:16); some Jerusalem scribes claim he was in league with“Beelzebul” because of his exorcism activity (3:22); they questioned his disciples’ hand-washing practices (7:1,5); along with priests and elders, they probed into the origins of Jesus’ authority (11:27-28), which the general populace perceived to be distinctive from the scribes (cf. 1:22); along with Jerusalem priests, they wanted to kill Jesus because they were afraid of his popularity (11:18, 32; 14:1), eventually leading to their working with Judas to capture Jesus (14:43); they assembled at a “trial” before the high priest (14:53), and, the next morning, consulted with others to “hand” Jesus over to Pilate (15:1); near the end of the story, Mark’s final reference, they “mocked” Jesus on the cross: “he saved others; he cannot save himself” (15:31). Ultimately, in Mark’s Gospel, some of the scribes, along with other Jerusalem leaders, were responsible for his condemnation and death (cf. 10:33).
32 The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ 33 And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 And when Jesus saw that [he] answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.