Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the scribes and Pharisees are described as antagonistic toward Jesus. When Jesus taught within the synagogue at the start of his public ministry, those present “were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mk 1:22). When Jesus forgave the sins of the paralytic man, the scribes were puzzled and angered (see Mk 2:5-7). After having fed the four thousand, the Pharisees demanded “a sign from heaven,” leading Jesus to warn the disciples of “the leaven of the Pharisees” (Mk 8:11-15).
But today’s Gospel is the lone, contrasting episode, for the scribe who asked the question, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” apparently did so out of sincere curiosity. He posed the question after overhearing the dispute between Jesus and the Sadducees over the general resurrection of the dead, a belief the Sadducees denied (see Mk 12:18-27). Here, he must have thought, is a teacher with a fresh perspective and a keen mind. “He could be one of those scribes who was shaken by the Lord’s coming,” speculated the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, “who do not yet see in him a full answer, but who nonetheless, through their engagement with the Scriptures, await a coming of God and a fulfillment of his promises.”
The answer given by Jesus is well known to Christians, as it elucidates the greatest commandment. The first part of the answer, on one hand, was not necessarily radical to first-century Jews. The declaration “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone” was a common, even essential, Jewish expression of faith; it was called the “Shema” and was prayed daily each morning and evening. It expressed the conviction that God is unique and one, creator and redeemer, and giver of the Torah, or Law.
So, the curious scribe was not surprised by the injunction, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment.” Being a faithful and observant Jew meant loving and fearing God, which meant keeping his commandments (see Dt 5:29). Faith and deeds were not separate in the Torah. And yet Jesus’ next words must have been rather surprising to most of those present: “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”
Treating your neighbor fairly? Sure! But love your neighbor as yourself? And claim it is intimately connected to the worship of God? Astonishing! Yes, the two actions can be distinguished from one another, but they are, Jesus insisted, inseparable. “This is the summit of virtue,” commented St. John Chrysostom, “the foundation of all God’s commandments: to the love of God is joined also love of neighbor. One who loves God does not neglect his brother nor esteem money more than a limb of his own, but he shows him great generosity.”
Love of God, therefore, is demonstrated in love for neighbor. Such love is a sign and realization of the kingdom of God. True religion (one’s relationship with God) and authentic morality (one’s relationship with other people) are married together. Remove one from the other and you are left with either empty ritual or empty social niceties, each divorced from our ultimate calling, which is communion with God and unity with our fellow man.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.