Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus and the Scribe
August 25, 2020
by Peter Amsterdam
Jesus—His Life and Message: Jesus and the Scribe
Jesus’ interaction with a particular scribe who was favorably impressed by His teaching is recounted in all three synoptic Gospels.1 The focus here will be on the version found in the Gospel of Mark.
In Mark chapter 12 we read three accounts of Jesus interacting with different religious authorities. First, the Pharisees and the Herodians tried to trap Jesus into saying something which would cause Him trouble with the authorities.2 Next, the Sadducees brought up a hypothetical question regarding the afterlife.3 The third encounter was with a scribe who had been listening to Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees.
One of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?”4
A scribe was a professional skilled in writing and interpreting texts. In Jesus’ time, scribes interpreted biblical texts and were considered to be guardians of the Jewish traditions. The majority of scribes were associated with the Pharisees. Throughout the book of Mark, they are often seen as being opposed to Jesus.
Some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”5
The scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.”6
Unlike the others, the scribe mentioned in this account was asking a sincere question. The question of which commandment was the most important was often debated among Jewish religious teachers. The Torah contained 613 separate commandments, of which 248 were positive and 365 were negative; since there were so many, it was common to discuss whether some commandments were more important than others, and which ones. Jesus seemed to imply that some of the commandments were less important than others, as He spoke of the least of these commandments.7 He also pointed out that some matters of the Law were more important than others:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.8
In this instance, the question was which commandment was the most fundamental—the bedrock command on which all others stand. Jesus responded by quoting two commandments from two separate sections of the Torah (the Old Testament). The first was probably the most well-known verse in Judaism, known as the Shema, which was repeated twice each day by religious Jews.
Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And 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.’"9
This commandment has four elements: the first is the “heart,” meaning the center of one’s affections; the second is the “soul,” which here means the source of one’s desires and feelings; the third is the “mind,” which involves thinking and understanding; and the fourth is “strength,” which is one’s energy. These four elements together signify loving God completely, with all of one’s being. This first commandment aligns with the first three of the ten commandments, which are all focused on one’s relationship with God. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls this the great and first commandment.10 It holds the place of priority.
Jesus went on to say:
“The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”11
This second commandment corresponds to the other seven of the ten commandments, which address individuals’ relationships with one another. People have a natural inclination to love themselves and to look out for themselves, but Jesus taught that this love should extend to one’s neighbor. Such love isn’t to be understood as an emotional feeling, but rather as acts of loving-kindness.
Together, these two commandments provide a basis for understanding life as first of all consisting of loving God and as a result loving one’s neighbor, who is created in the image of God, is loved by God, and is one for whom Christ died.12 Jesus seemed to take these two commandments about loving God and loving one’s neighbor and combine them into one commandment as He stated that there is no other commandment greater than these. All of the other commandments can be understood as expanding on this two-part primary command.
The scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. 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, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”13
The scribe’s response affirms Jesus’ statement regarding the Shema, that God is one, and he also commends Jesus for speaking the truth about this. The scribe shows his agreement with what Jesus stated by repeating it. However, he omits, “with all your soul” and changes “with all your mind” to “with all your understanding.” These differences are minor and don’t seem significant.
The scribe went on to add that loving God with all one’s heart and one’s neighbor as oneself is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. Whole burnt offerings refers to sacrifices in which the whole offering was burned on the altar; whereas the expression “sacrifices” refers to various offerings in which part of the sacrifice was burned on the altar, but part was given to the priest and part returned to the worshipper to be eaten.
When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.14
Jesus commended this scribe for understanding that loving God with all one’s heart and loving one’s neighbor was more important than any temple rituals. This scribe was near to the kingdom of God, but we’re not told whether he chose to follow Jesus or not. Author Robert Stein wrote:
The account ends without telling us. This may be intentional, for Mark may want his readers to wrestle with the question, “Have I entered the kingdom of God?” Nearness to the kingdom is not enough.15
Author Craig Evans states:
The love that Scripture and Jesus command is not simply an emotion (though that is often involved); it is rather a commitment and a loyalty, which will manifest itself in obedience to the will of God and respect for and, when required, assistance for one’s neighbor. The highest ethic of the Law is not sacrifice … it is loyalty to God and compassion for human beings.16
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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1 Matthew 22:35–40, Luke 10:25–29, Mark 12:28–34.
2 Mark 12:12–17.
3 Mark 12:18–27.
4 Mark 12:28.
5 Mark 2:6–7.
6 Mark 3:22.
7 Matthew 5:19.
8 Matthew 23:23.
9 Mark 12:29–30.
10 Matthew 22:38.
11 Mark 12:31.
12 Stein, Mark, 562.
13 Mark 12:32–33.
14 Mark 12:34.
15 Stein, Mark, 564.
16 Evans, World Biblical Commentary, 267.