A question of neighbor

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. Having answered the inquiry with respect to the commandment to love God as the first commandment, Jesus adds: “The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”  (Lev 19:18)  Many people think that this was a response unique to Jesus, but as noted in yesterday’s post, when challenged by a Gentile, Hillel the Elder (ca. 40 B.C.-A.D. 10) replied: “What you yourself hate, do not do to your neighbor: this is the whole Law, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” This was Hillel’s summary of the whole Law which, for the observant Jew, is rooted in the love of God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the Shemaʿ ). The sense of there being the two great commandments was already present in Jewish thought.

It would not have been surprising when 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.” 

The context of Lev 19:18 is the narrow sense of to whom it applied as the command is defined by the prior reference to “the sons of your own people” in the beginning of the verse. Although not from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus lifted the commandment from this restriction in reference, with his startling teaching concerning the breadth of  neighbor in the passage of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:25–37). The Lukan statement concerning the will of God and its fulfilment as the combined and inseparable love for God and love for men is evident in subsequent apostolic teaching (cf. Rom. 13:8–9; Gal. 5:14; Jas. 2:8). I would suggest that given Mark is writing for a Roman audience, the wider understanding of being neighbor might be a given.

What might be surprising in the scribe’s response is that these two commands are “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Lane [433-4] offers: “The common scribal  position is well summarized in the maxim of Simon the Just (ca. 200 B.C.): ‘The world rests on three things: the Law, the sacrificial worship, and expressions of love’ (M. Aboth I. 2). But there are also statements in rabbinic literature which are attached explicitly or implicitly to OT texts like 1 Sam. 15:22; Hos. 6:6; Prov. 21:3 which affirm the superiority of the moral life, and especially of love, to cult and sacrifice. A careful reading of the texts indicates that “love” is understood as benevolence expressed in works of love which are set above sacrifice because of their atoning significance (cf. Aboth de Rabbi Nathan IV. 2). This concept falls short of expressing that inner commitment to God for his own sake which Jesus had affirmed” and to which the scribe agreed.


William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) pp. 433-34

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