The Scribe’s Comment (Mark 12:32-33) December 26, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, The Greatest Commandment (Mark 12).
Tags: Deuteronomy 4:35, dichotomy, fulfilling the law, Greatest Commandment, Jesus, loving God, Mark 12, Passion Week, psyche, Scribe, Shema, teacher, trichotomy
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“And the scribe said to him, ‘Very good, teacher, you speak truthfully that He is one and that there is not another besides him. And to love Him with the whole heart, with the whole understanding, with all strength, and to love a neighbor as ourselves is far greater than all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
It is obvious that the scribe is pleased with Jesus’ response, and this sets up an interesting dynamic, for Jesus will commend (at least on one level) the scribe as well. This makes for one of the more unusual interactions that Jesus has during this week. Prior to this question, Jesus has been bombarded by challenges to his authority and traps to try and trick him into siding with this group or that. Here, as we discussed above, is at least an underlying question again as to who Jesus will side with in his interpretation of the law. Some have made the suggestion that this comment by the scribe is rather insincere, but that seems rather odd given the context of Jesus’ statement in response. So how are we to understand this dialogue and how are we going to understand the variation between what Jesus taught immediately before and how this scribe paraphrases his statement?
To begin with, we see the scribe giving the briefest summary of the Shema. Jesus has quoted it verbatim and the scribe is giving his own interpretation of what Jesus said, tying in Deuteronomy 4:35 to support his answer. This was a common rhetorical technique amongst the Jewish Rabbis. Theology was done in the form of dialogue, so one might begin with a question, and the discussion that ensued would be in the form of more questions, answers, and interpretations in the hopes of arriving at a better understanding of the question at hand. We should not see the Scribe as being incompetent and unable to quote the Shema back to Jesus, but that he is interpreting Jesus’ statement in the context of the discussion. With this in mind, it sets the stage for the second part of the scribe’s statement. The scribe misses the language of yuch/ (psuche), or life, altogether and he replaces Jesus’ language of dia/noia (dianoia), or understanding, with the language of su/nesiß (sunesis), or intelligence. In addition, the scribe ties in passages like Hosea 6:6 and 1 Samuel 15:22, to speak of our loving obedience to God is far better than the ritual sacrifices of the temple. Again, what we find is that the scribe is responding to Jesus’ statement by offering an interpretation of it, and Jesus will respond favorably.
One of the major issues that Jesus battled with during his earthly ministry was the issue of people missing the intent behind the law in their pursuit of the letter of the law. The Pharisees, especially, were guilty of this. In their zeal for obedience, they had allowed the law to be understood in a legalistic way and had become blinded to the truth behind what God was commanding. God demands love and obedience from his people in every aspect and area of their lives. As Abraham Kuyper commented, “There is not an inch of this whole life that Jesus, as Lord of creation, does not put his finger on and declare, ‘Mine!’” And in the case of this scribe, it seems that he got it. He understood the intent of the law and demonstrated that understanding by the way he tied in other passages of scripture that spoke of similar things. So, beloved, what should we be reminded of from our scribe’s answer? We should be reminded that in all that we do, in whatever capacity that we serve the church, we are to be wholly committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. This commitment must never take the form of a list of “dos” and “don’ts” apart from what scripture commands to be a “do” or a “don’t,” but instead, we are to pursue God and his righteousness in service to our fellow man. This is our calling, to share the gospel with all and to make disciples by baptizing and teaching people to obey all that Jesus taught. Beloved, what a task we have before us; pray that the Holy Spirit will bless that task and empower it in such a way that God is glorified in all we do.
Which Commandment is First? (Mark 12:28) December 24, 2008Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, The Greatest Commandment (Mark 12).
Tags: 10 Commandments, 613 Commandments of God, Commandment, Decalogue, Division of the Ten Commandments, Essines, First Commandment, First in the Whole, gematria, Greatest Commandment, Law of God, Maccabees, Mark 12:28-34, Passion Week, Pharisee, Royal Priests, Sadducee, Scribe, Seleucids, Ten Commandments, Two Tables of the Law, Unity of the Ten Commandments
“And one of the scribes approached, hearing them disputing, and seeing that he replied well to them, put a question to him: “which commandment is first in the whole?”
Matthew and Mark both include this dialogue between Jesus and the Scribe/teacher of the Law with very few variations. Luke relates a similar account, but the context and the question were entirely different. In Luke 10:27, Jesus is being asked what one must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response is to give the same answer that he does in this passage, but also to tell the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate who one’s neighbor happens to be. In addition, Luke then records the event with Jesus at Mary and Martha’s house to help illustrate (through Mary’s actions) what it looks like when you love the Lord God with all of your heart, strength, and mind.
In this context, we find Jesus during his last week of earthly ministry, often referred to as Jesus’ Passion Week. Jesus has entered into Jerusalem during this time and has been publicly teaching and facing the challenges of the Jewish authorities. In terms of the immediate context, this dialogue most likely takes place that Tuesday, two days before his arrest, and he is facing a string of legal and philosophical questions that are designed to trap Jesus into siding with one religious party or another—a trap that Jesus refuses to fall into. Hence, unlike the account in Luke, there is no genuine interchange of ideas nor does Jesus tell any parables to illustrate his point; he is being challenged and the statements that come out of the mouth of our Lord are made with emphasis and with clarity.
Earlier this day, the Sadducees had sent a group to question Jesus’ authority to preach in the temple and to clear it of those who were selling in the courtyard. After the Sadducees leave the Pharisees step in only to be followed by the Sadducees once again. Historically, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were at odds with one another. The Sadducees were the remnant of the elite priestly ruling class that went back to the Hasmonean Dynasty, which had begun in Judea roughly 170 years earlier. When Judah Maccabees and his brothers overthrew the Seleucids, who controlled the area at the time, his brother Simon would end up ruling over the then free Jewish state (Judah had died). Simon combined the office of King with that of the High Priest, making the priestly office one of privilege and reputation and not one of Levitical service. These “Royal Priests” would become known as the Sadducees. During this era, two reform groups emerged: the Pharisees and the Essines. The Essines were a radical group that withdrew from the cities into what were essentially fortified monasteries. They studied and trained to become the army of the Messiah when he would come. The Pharisees were a less radical group, but one that pushed personal piety and who challenged the hypocrisy of the ruling order. Sadly, by Jesus’ day, the Pharisees had reduced themselves into a legalistic view of what it meant to be a believer and had become very hypocritical themselves, obeying the law (as they nuanced it) but missing entirely the purpose behind the law. With this history in mind, it is easy to see not only the tension between the two classes (Pharisees and Sadducees), but also the way each group was looking to try and get Jesus to take sides so that they could discredit him.
Thus a scribe approaches Jesus and puts him to the test—which commandment would Jesus say was first amongst the whole of the law, or, as we usually put it into language today, which is the greatest commandment? Our idiomatic English translation does us a little bit of an injustice, though, given our mindset. When someone poses the question to us of which commandment or which law is the greatest, we think back, and in our minds, treat the commandments of God as separate commands that can be isolated from one another. As westerners, we are accustomed to compartmentalizing everything, and while on some level this is useful for acquiring and applying knowledge, it also creates a perception that the commandments of God are not intimately interrelated—or more specifically, are a unified whole. One of the great points that James makes is that if you break one of the commands in the Ten Commandments, you are guilty of breaking the whole law because the whole law is one (James 2:10). It should not surprise us, then, that Jesus answers this question by summing up the spirit of the law in two categories rather than elevating one aspect of the whole. Which is first in the whole, Jesus is asked? “Love God” is his answer. Which is second? “Love man.”
While many of us who have grown up in the Protestant traditions are accustomed to this kind of language, essentially dividing the Law of God (the 10 Commandments) into two sections, or two tables, one being our obligations toward God and the second being our obligations toward man, we must not assume that such is the same way the ancient minds approached the Law. In fact, there were and continue to be many schools of thought amongst Jewish and Christian thinkers as to how the Decalogue should be divided up. Some have suggested that there are five and five, drawing thematic parallels between the first and the sixth, the second and the seventh, and so forth. For example, the line of thinking is that the first commandment (no other gods) is connected with the sixth (not kill) because when you take the life of another you put yourself into God’s place, essentially making yourself to be a god and breaking the first commandment as well as the sixth. Though Jesus does not divide up the law in this way, it does help illustrate the inter-connectedness and unity of the Ten Commandments of God.
In Jesus’ day, gematria had become a popular way of looking at the Law. Gematria is a means by which the numerical value of words or phrases was calculated (remembering that letters in ancient times represented the numerical system, so “a” would be equal to 1 and “b” would be equal to 2, etc…). Then, the laws which represented the highest numerical value was considered to be most important. Another way that was popular was to look at the penalty that was connected to disobeying the law. The harsher the judgment against the sin, the more important that rule was considered to be. This concept was later picked up by the Roman Catholic church and provided some of the foundation for their division of mortal and venal sins along with isolated passages like 1 John 5:16-17 and Hebrews 10:26). By Jesus’ day, the rabbis had extended this debate outside of the Ten Commandments to reflect the whole council of God’s command. They had identified (in what we refer to as the Old Testament scriptures) 613 commandments of God (248 positive commands and 365 negative commands). Others weighted commands more heavily depending on how far back in the scriptures that they were recorded as having been given, thus emphasizing the Sabbath command or the Circumcision. Yet, once everything was said and done, they missed the purpose of the law—to demonstrate to us the holiness of God and to make us painfully aware that based on human efforts alone, we cannot come close to that holiness—or, in other words, to drive us to our knees in the midst of our sins and make us realize how desperately we need a redeemer. The Law was not designed to be parsed and made into a checklist; it was meant to drive us to Christ!
With this now before us, we have a far better picture of what the religious authorities were trying to do with Jesus. They were trying to put him into a box or a category, and then once defined by men’s terms, they could give him a label. Once labeled, they could have worked to discredit him in the people’s eyes. This scribe is essentially seeing where Jesus is going to fall in this matter, but our Lord does not allow himself to be put into a box. Our Lord never allows himself to be put into a box, but oh, how we so often try. We want to define God on our terms and according to our own understanding of how we believe God should think and behave, but God refuses to be dealt with on human terms. Beloved, how we must always endeavor to submit ourselves to God’s terms. Let God define our theology and our ideas according to his word, do not try to make God work to support your pet preference. This way of thinking and living is a harder road to travel, but it is the only road that honors God with your heart, mind, and whole life.