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Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark. The Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney translates this passage in her A Woman’s Lectionary For The Whole Church, Year W:
Now, one of the biblical scholars came near and heard them [the other biblical scholars, the chief priests, and the elders] discussing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, the scholar asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is: Hear, O Israel: The Holy One our God, the Holy is one; you shall love the Holy One your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and 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.” Then the biblical scholar said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that, ‘God is one, and besides God there is no other’; and to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that the scholar answered wisely he said, “You are not far from the reign of God.” After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question. (Mark 12:28-34, page 271)
This week’s story comes at the end of a series of confrontational challenges between Jesus and others (see 11:27, 12:13, 12:18). By contrast, this interaction is friendly, and I’ll explain why I think so in a moment.
First, let’s unpack what the narrative says is happening.
A scholar who overhears Jesus’ discussions is impressed with him. He then asks his own question of Jesus, and Jesus’ answer in Mark is squarely in the Jewish tradition of the Pharisaical school of Hillel. Rabbi Hillel reportedly once answered a similar question with the response, “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole law. everything else is commentary. Now go learn that!”
So the scholar’s question was not only common among Jewish scholars by Jesus’ time, but Jesus’ responses in Mark are also the core confessions of Judaism::
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Many scholars have noticed that Mark’s Jesus replaces “all your soul” with “all your mind,” a signal that Mark’s audience was influenced by the Hellenized world.
Jesus also quotes Leviticus in his reply:
“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” (Leviticus 19:18)
This passage has an interesting context itself. It comes at the end of a list of prohibitions regarding oppression and exploitation of the poor and/or economically vulnerable:
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God.”
“Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not deceive one another.”
“Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.
“Do not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, but fear your God. I am the LORD.”
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” (Leviticus 19:9-15)
Many today tout loving your neighbor as a religious tenet, but Leviticus shows it originally had very real world economic, social and political implications.
Again, our story in Mark comes at the end of a series of confrontational challenges. We’ll unpack one possible reason why, next.
(Read Part 2)