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28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[b] 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[c]There is no commandment greater than these.”
32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
34 When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.
Mark 12:28-34 is a biblical passage that addresses the greatest commandment in accordance with what was required of the Israelites by God. Due to the universal nature of the teaching implied in this teaching, Christians across the globe have interpreted differently. More particularly, the Protestants and Catholics seem to have similar and differing sentiments regarding some of the issues addressed in the text. However, of importance to this paper is the consideration of the exegesis of the text. Therefore, the main goal of this paper is to analyze both Protestant and Catholic commentaries about this passage, and conduct an exegesis in order to establish the original meaning of the biblical text.
This biblical passage presents one of those few gospel narratives when there would be an agreement between Jesus and the Pharisees. The Scribe, who was a Pharisee, had heard Jesus debating wisely against the Sadducees. Impressed, he approached Jesus with a question that was of utmost importance at the time, and asked him what the first commandment was. This was at a time when the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and others had their own translations on the meaning and implication of certain scriptures, especially in regard to the Law. By asking Jesus which commandment was the first of all, it was not really a matter of the first one in ranking, but in significance and magnitude of its implication. Jesus responded that the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”, the second being to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-30).
There are aspects about the passage that both Protestant and Catholic commentaries find similar sentiments. The Catholic commentary from word-Sunday.com addresses the passage from the perspective of the highest value in that particular culture that also represents all Christ’s followers, and how it arranges other values. Matthew Henry’s Protestant commentary from the biblegateway.com also argues that the passage was intended to teach the Israelites about the God’s commandment that was most critical in their spiritual and social lives. In the original religious context, the Christian community was divided at that time because the Law of Moses (Torah) was being interpreted differently by different spiritual leaders and organizations. In addition, Jesus was amongst them and there was a debate whether really he was indeed the Messiah. Being God himself, Jesus knew the ambiguity existed and received this as a great opportunity of informing the people about the real truth concerning the issue. The gospel had become twisted such that there was a sense of confusion even concerning the way people related with God, the high priests, and amongst themselves. By answering the question diligently, Jesus eliminated any previously held doubts concerning the way God required his people to relate with him and among themselves.
The Christian community at that time had also began putting too much focus on the laws of fulfilling religious rituals such as offering sacrifices and burnt offerings. For most of them, Christianity was all about fulfilling specific laws of Moses with little or no regard to honoring God. The scribe was greatly impressed by the response of Jesus and even emphasized that indeed, loving God wholly and loving each other as one would themselves are actually greater laws than those of sacrificing and offering burnt offerings. The scribe was impressed because he was a teacher himself and in his line of duty, he must have experienced the way people had begun idolizing the sacrifices and offerings they were presenting, more than God himself. Jesus also recognized that the scribe was prudent in his response and that he would effectively lead the affections of the souls of people towards loving and honoring God more than material things.
The political original context of the passage also reveals further significance of this passage. The Pharisees had been criticizing Jesus together with his disciples, accusing them of consorting with sinners and even worse, failure to keep the law. In response, Jesus had accused them of leading people astray, betraying the Jewish prophets heritage, corruption, being hypocrites, and having mixed up religious priorities. Just like the Pharisees, the Sadducees also considered their role to be that of upholding the Jewish traditional beliefs and practices (web). They too had a problem with Jesus mainly because of ‘assuming the authority of God through acts such as healing people, forgiving sins, and interpreting the law’. They were opposed to Jesus because they viewed him as one who challenged whatever religious authority he came across. They were also serious political figures because they would vie for influence with the Roman rulers within the royal court. Therefore, they also viewed Jesus as an opposition to their political ambitions.
The Israelite power elite was mostly comprised of scribes, chief priests, and elders, with the elders acting as the leaders of the community and judges as well. The chief priests would be comprised of the high priestly families or those who had been awarded such authority by the high priests themselves. The scribes who were trying to argue with Jesus were mostly lawyers and judges of the community. The scribes interpreted the Jewish law that they did not create, and this was the source of their conflicts with Jesus because he claimed to have authority over the law (Roskam, 76). Jesus had also turned around most the beliefs that had been held by the Jews for a long. For instance, he had proclaimed a kingdom whereby the unlawful would be lawful, and the unclean made clean. Whereas Jesus gave a new way of living for the majority by so doing, he would often end up making the leadership hostile. This is a conflict that eventually led to his death.
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When the scribe asked Jesus about the greatest commandment he had found him arguing with the Sadducee, it thus suggests that the scribe was looking for an opportunity to engage Jesus in a religious argument with the intention of trying to find out just how much he knew about the law. He wanted to prove to Jesus that he knew more about the Torah and that he could challenge him in such matters. However, the wise response of Jesus that left the scribe astonished that after Jesus was done responding, he could not help but agree with him. Here, Jesus portrayed his distinction from the other religious leaders by showing that he was not only interpreting the law like them, but was indeed the law and above it (Hendriksen, 24). In addition, by telling him that “”You’re not far from God’s Kingdom”, Jesus acknowledged and approved the wisdom of the scribe in that matter.
It is easy to infer from the passage that the people in this text are curious about the gospel because they are easily absorbed in different religious teachings. There was an emergence of different spiritual leaders preaching differing sets of doctrine, yet they all purported to interpret the scripture. The religious beliefs also emphasized certain religious activities and ceremonies, some of which were established during the days of Abraham. The people were vulnerable for any interpretation of the law regardless of its credibility and Jesus had come just in time to reveal the real truth of God. Some of their religious concerns or questions must have been; “Is following God a matter of the law without any other consideration?, Can God hear me or he only hears certain spiritual leaders? Among others. They must have been confused about the nature of God and had started to realize that Jesus indeed had the answers (Strauss, 32).
The author of the Catholic commentary expresses the religious views that the passage of Mark 12: 28-34 implies that loving God and loving others as one loves themselves is the highest value of our culture. Just like the people of God required to be reminded of the most important commandment in life, the preceding Christians including those in this and future generations also require to be reminded of this critical truth often (web). On the other hand, the author of the Protestant commentary gives the audience the view that they should set their desires and affections entirely upon God for in so doing, they fulfill the first commandment.
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- Hendriksen, William, and Simon Kistemaker. New Testament commentary. Baker Book House, 2007.
- Henry, Matthew. “BibleGateway.” Verses 28–34 – Matthew Henry’s Commentary – Bible Gateway
- Roskam, Hendrika Nicoline. The purpose of the Gospel of Mark in its historical and social context. Brill, 2004.
- Strauss, Mark L. How to read the Bible in changing times: understanding and applying Gods word today. Baker Books, 2011.
- “What’s Most Important?” A Lectionary Resource for Catholics, Word Sunday