In the previous controversies recorded in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ questioners were Pharisees and Sadducees. Unlike them, the Scribe in Sunday’s Gospel is positively disposed toward Jesus, agrees with him, and is praised by him. This Scribe approaches Jesus with a question regarding a matter which was regularly debated in the rabbinic schools of the day: “Which commandment is the first of all?”
Rabbis espoused 613 commandments: 248 of them positive in form and 365 negative in form. There was a tendency to either expand the Law limitlessly into hundreds and thousands of rules and regulations or, to try to gather up the Law into one sentence, one general statement, which would be a compendium of its whole message. Hence, the Scribe who poses this question to Jesus was asking about something which was a living issue in Jewish thought and discussion.
For an answer Jesus took two commandments and put them together. The first commandment Jesus cites is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4 and part of the Jewish daily prayer (the Shema):
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”.
Thus, Jesus’ answer is thoroughly within the Jewish tradition. Interestingly, Mark adds “mind” to the citation from Deuteronomy. This reflects concern among Jews about “the things of the mind” prevalent in their Hellenistic environment.
Nonetheless, the reason for “piling up” parts of a person – “heart”, “soul”, “mind”, “strength”, – is to insist that the whole person is to love God.
The second part of Jesus’ response to the Scribe is a quotation from Leviticus 19:18b: “but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…”.
The Scribe willingly accepted Jesus’ response and went on to say that such a love was “worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices”, echoing what is written in 1 Samuel: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice…” (1 Samuel 15:22); and Hosea, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings…” (Hosea 6:6).
It can be easy to let ritual take the place of love. It can be easy to let worship become a matter of simply stepping inside the church building instead of a matter of letting Jesus inside one’s whole life.
Perhaps this is why the Scribe found favor with Jesus and “not far from the kingdom”; after all, the King was standing before him.
Draw near to the King through his word.