12:28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?”
12:29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one;
12:30 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.’
12:31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
12:32 Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’;
12:33 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,’ –this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
12:34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.
A Question or Two:
- Jesus and the scribe agree on a basic point of Jewish faithfulness.
- Why do so many interpreters imagine that disagreements are more important?
Some Longer Reflections:
This scene begins with an offhand reference to the previous scene. Jesus has been arguing with Sadducees. They have been arguing about resurrection. Sadducees thought of resurrection as a foreign intrusion into the faith. Jesus and the Pharisees saw it as essential to a proper understanding of God, and of human life and hope. Jesus finishes by simply dismissing the Sadducees and their objections. “You are the ones who have wandered off,” he says.
The Sadducees intended to argue that speculation about some sort of afterlife would lead to drifty dreaming, and that this would weaken Torah observance in the real world. This is an important argument. I find it intriguing, and sometimes compelling. But you have to remember who the Sadducees were: they were the group within 1st century Jewish society that Rome had selected to be their “organ of liaison.” Because they were associated with the priesthood and the Temple, people would listen to them when they spoke. Pontius Pilate used them, therefore, to be his mouthpiece, his puppet. They did not have a choice in this matter, but they did have an advantage. Pilate forced them to collaborate with Rome, but he also paid them very well for their services.
This Roman move is brilliant and cynical. The very group that had the ear of the people (and who, thus, could organize Jewish resistance to foreign domination) was made into the voice of Rome.
Jesus’ offhand dismissal of the Sadducees reveals the success of the Roman action: Jews who might have followed them ended up resenting them. The Sadducees were collaborators, and they were rich because of it. It was easy for them to focus their hopes on the present world. Their privilege protected them. They may well have imagined that they were protecting the Jewish faith from Persian influences (resurrection seems to have roots in that culture) and from drifty dreaming, but their imagining was built on the foundation of their comfort, their Roman privilege.
The scribe (most likely associated with the Pharisees) is pleased to see Jesus reveal the defect in Sadducean theology. He asks a question that is guaranteed to allow discussion of the heart of Jewish life. “What is the core of Torah observance?” he asks. “What does it mean to be faithful in a world where power seems to be more valuable than truth?”
Jesus’ answer is important. He says, “Remember who you are. You are Jews who wrestle with the God whose Unity holds all things together, even in political chaos. Love that unifying God with everything that makes you human: your decisions, your life, your best analyses, and with your ability to transcend yourself.”
But he doesn’t stop there, which is good. Had he stopped there, he would have implied that the only solution to anger and division is to retreat into other-worldliness. Jesus does not stop. “Love the people next to you,” he says, using the word (Ἀγαπήσεις) that implies mutuality and eager responsiveness above all. “Don’t let anger isolate you. You are not alone. You have a neighbor. Let the pressure of the present moment drive you together, not apart.”
You are not alone.
Love your neighbor.