The First Commandment
28 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?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you 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.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him 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.” 34 When 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., 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 the 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.
What to do with this educator’s commentary
This commentary invites you as a teacher to engage with and interpret the passage. Allow the text to speak first. The commentary suggests that you ask yourself various questions that will aid your interpretation. They will help you answer for yourself the question in the last words of the text: ‘what does this mean?’
This educator’s commentary is not a ‘finished package’. It is for your engagement with the text. You then go on to plan how you enable your students to work with the text.
Both you and your students are the agents of interpretation. The ‘Worlds of the Text’ offer a structure, a conversation between the worlds of the author and the setting of the text; the world of the text; and the world of reader. In your personal reflection and in your teaching all three worlds should be integrated as they rely on each other.
In your teaching you are encouraged to ask your students to engage with the text in a dialogical way, to explore and interpret it, to share their own interpretation and to listen to that of others before they engage with the way the text might relate to a topic or unit of work being studied.
Structure of the commentary:
The world of the author’s community
The world at the time of the text
Geography of the text
Questions for the teacher
Text & textual features
Characters & setting
Ideas / phrases / concepts
Questions for the teacher
Questions for the teacher
Meaning for today / challenges
Church interpretations & usage
The World Behind the Text
See general introduction to Mark.
The World of the Text
Text & Textual Features
Remembering that this encounter takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life (on the day we would call the Tuesday after Palm Sunday) is critical, and so too, is the location. From Mark 11.15 to the end of Mark 13, Jesus is in the Temple precinct. This gives his teaching a more profound sense as it is wrapped in the escalating tension between Jesus and the leaders of Jerusalem’s religious establishment.
Jesus is at the Temple engaged in a series of confrontations with the religious leadership who question the source of Jesus’ authoritative teaching. The style of questioning is known in Rabbinical study circles as pilpel – which literally means “pepper” – ‘you say this, we say that,’ ‘you use this Torah verse to justify your response, we use this Torah response.’ Of course, for Mark, the confrontation is not just academic debate, it is vicious and deliberately used by the leaders to find an excuse, based on the Torah they are debating, to get rid of Jesus. However, at every turn, Jesus outwits his opponents, much to their frustration.
Mark’s audience was most likely unfamiliar with this Jewish practice of question/answer/question format of argument, especially since to most educated Greco-Romans it often appeared to be a ridiculous and pedantic way of supposedly learning. However, the presence in the text of this form of debate indicates that the event has been retained in the memory of the first witnesses and so found their way to Mark. They may not have been the events we read in this chapter, but it is highly likely that Jesus did debate in this manner, and it is also likely that these stories were handed on in the community and ultimately to the author of the Gospel of Mark.
Characters & Setting:
The passage is the third in chapter 12 in which the religious authorities try to trap him. One of the scribes listening to the debate comes to Jesus to ask another question, which at first glance might seem somewhat obvious, but is, in fact, another way of developing an argument. The difference is that the Scribe seems to be asking genuinely, indicated by Jesus’ commendation to him. This is the only occasion where Jesus speaks favourably of a Scribe in any of the Gospels.
- Conflict: Marks Gospel as a whole is written as a narrative. Conflict at the Temple is dangerous; Jesus is now in the midst of the religious ‘playground’ arguing with its leaders.
- Questioning: The Scribe’s question goes to the heart of the matter. His question was not outrageous but was carefully considered and had been a question often posed by teachers of Torah. What is the greatest or first of all the commandments? The response to the God who has been revealed to Israel as love, is a total love of one’s whole being. From this love of God then flows the second part of the Commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19.18). To devout Jews such as Jesus and the Scribe, these words formed part of the daily prayer and were the words that every Jew hoped to be able to pray at the moment of their death. Affirmation of the Oneness of God, the affirmation of the totality of the believer’s love for God and the affirmation that the believer had been true in their love of God through the lived expression of their love of their neighbour, which the Prophets made clear, was all humanity. The Scribe makes allusion to the prophetic call to love God from the heart and not solely through religious practice. Jesus’ response is affirmed as true by the Scribe whose own response is then affirmed by Jesus.
- Kingdom of God: Jesus affirms the Scribe saying that he is not far from the Kingdom of God. The “kingdom” or “reign” of God is a metaphor for the breaking forth of the new reality that is revealed in Jesus. The Kingdom that Jesus speaks of is nothing like the kingdoms of earth, nothing like the Pax Romana under which the Judeans lived, and nothing like the hoped for restoration of Israel that some of Jesus’ followers expected. In Mark’s Gospel, “kingdom” is both an external reality in the lived experience of the community of Jesus’ followers who remain faithful to Jesus despite persecution and suffering; and it is an internal reality in the lived experience of the believer – Jew or Gentile – who has encountered Jesus and come to know him as the Son of God (cf Mark 15.39). The way to the Kingdom is through love of God and neighbour.
Questions for the teacher:
The World in the Front of the Text
Questions for the teacher:
Meaning for today/challenges
At the heart of the passage in Mark is the question of priority: What really matters? Is it being faithful to tradition? Is it careful and sometimes clever working within a political, social or economic system in order “to get by”? Is it doing the right thing? Or is there something more?
The Scribe’s question then, when seen in this context, opens up these questions. If I am faithful to all that has been given to me; if I am a good person who sincerely does the right thing and is faithful to the traditions that have been handed on to me from my parents and family; then isn’t that enough? Asking Jesus to name the greatest commandment when I am surrounded by so many is perhaps the question that cries out from the Scribe’s heart just as much as it may well cry out from mine. And Jesus answers that the ground upon which all else is built is love of God and love of neighbour. It is a love that is sacrificial. I say I love God with all my being, but it is in the way I treat my neighbour – not my blood family – which shows whether my love is real or not. Everything else comes second; and that most likely means making choices and sometimes those choices may come at a cost.
Church interpretation and usage
This passage could be used as the basis of a reconciliation service, a reflection piece for reflection days, retreats or staff prayer. It could form the basis of a Lectio study on the question of “What really matters?”