Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Mark 12:28-34



As we come near the end of Mark’s Gospel, he focuses on Jesus’ Passion (chapter 15) and the events that lead up to it (chapters 11-14) . Chapter 16 has either a brief account of Jesus’ resurrection (the shorter version) or a longer version that includes Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene and two disciples (16:9-13) as well as an account of the Great Commission (16:14-18) and Jesus’ Ascension (16:19-20). He thus devotes nearly 40 percent of his Gospel on these events of Jesus’ last week.

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem begins this section (11:1-11). Then Jesus curses a barren fig tree (11:12-14), a thinly veiled commentary on the barrenness of temple religion. He then cleanses the temple (11:15-19), arousing the hostility of the chief priests and scribes, who set out to kill him (11:18). Mark then reports a series of conflicts with a host of official religionists. The story of the scribe who asks about the first commandment follows hard on the heels of three hostile questions by Jesus’ opponents:

• The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders asked Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things? Or who gave you this authority to do these things?” (11:28).

• Some Pharisees and Herodians tried to trap Jesus with this comment, greased with flattery at the front and armed with a stinger at the back: “Teacher, we know that you are honest, and don’t defer to anyone; for you aren’t partial to anyone, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?” (12:14-15a).

• Some Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection, asked, “Teacher, Moses wrote to us, ‘If a man’s brother dies, and leaves a wife behind him, and leaves no children, that his brother should take his wife, and raise up offspring for his brother.’ There were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and dying left no offspring. The second took her, and died, leaving no children behind him. The third likewise; and the seven took her and left no children. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be of them? For the seven had her as a wife.” (12:19-23).


The story of the scribe asking about the first commandment is found in all three Synoptics, but with significant differences.

• In Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28, the scribe comes as an adversary to test Jesus, whereas Mark presents the scribe much more favorably.

• In Luke, Jesus does not answer the scribe’s question directly, but asks, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” (Luke 10:26). The scribe gives the answer, essentially repeating Jesus’ words as found in Mark 12:30-31, but omitting the Shema, “Hear, Israel, the Lord is one” (12:29).

• In Luke, the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) follows immediately after the encounter with the scribe, expanding greatly the concept of neighbor.


28One of the scribes came, and heard them questioning together. Knowing that he had answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?”

Scribes appear throughout this Gospel but, except for this story, appear in a negative light. This scribe, a happy exception, comes to Jesus because he has seen that Jesus has answered his opponents well. The Sadducees have tried to stump Jesus with a question about the resurrection, in which they do not believe (12:18-27). There is a strong possibility that this scribe is a Pharisee, and Pharisees do believe in the resurrection. If the scribe is a Pharisee, he must be pleased to see Jesus get the best of the Sadducees on that question.

The scribe asks, “Which commandment is the greatest of all?” Unlike most stories where a religious official asks Jesus a question, there is no indication that this scribe is trying to trap Jesus. He seems to be asking an honest question.

The scribe is asking, not which commandment is first of many, but rather which commandment defines the core of Torah law—stands at its center—summarizes it. Is there one law that is the key to all the laws?

Jewish law includes 613 commandments (365 prohibitions and 248 positive commandments). Scribes divide these into “light” and “heavy” commandments, the light commandments being less important and the heavy ones more important. Scribes examine each law in minute detail, and devise complex rules to help people understand how to obey each law in every conceivable situation.

A number of prophets and rabbis had tried to summarize the law:

• “What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

• “What you hate for yourself, do not to your neighbor. This is the whole law, the rest is commentary” (Hillel).

• “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Akiba).


29Jesus answered, “The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: 30you shall love (Greek: agapeseisagape love) the Lord your God with (Greek: ex—out of—from) all your heart, (Greek: kardias) and with all your soul, (Greek: psuches) and with all your mind,(Greek: dianoias) and with all your strength’ (Greek: ischuos). This is the first commandment.

31The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

“The greatest is, ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one'” (v. 29). Matthew 22:37 and Luke 10:27 do not include this portion of this verse, but it is important. The fact that the Lord is one adds weight to the obligation to love the Lord.

The Jews refer to these words as the “Shema” (pronounced shi-MAH), which means, “to hear” and comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. The Shema is regularly recited in synagogue worship and daily prayers, and is one of the scriptures kept in phylacteries (a small container worn on one’s person containing scriptures) and mezuzahs (a similar container for the doorpost of one’s house) as a constant reminder.

In reciting the Shema, Jesus goes to the Torah—to the core of Jewish faith and practice. Jesus uses it to introduce the commandment to love God. The Shema is not itself a commandment, but instead establishes the foundation for the commandment to love God.

“you shall love (agapeseis—from agapao—having to do with agape love) the Lord your God with (ex—out of—from) all your heart, (kardias) and with all your soul, (psuches) and with all your mind, (dianoias) and with all your strength” (ischuos) (v. 30). Deuteronomy 6:5 speaks of loving God with one’s heart, soul and might. Jesus adds loving God with one’s mind. Scribes and rabbis do, indeed, love God with their minds. They study scriptures as a prospector studies rocks for signs of gold. They cover the same ground again and again in the hope of finding a new treasure. Theirs is an intellectual approach to the scriptures.

To love God with heart, soul, mind and strength is to love God with all that we are. Jewish people think of the heart (kardia) as the center of thought as well as feelings. They think of the soul (psyche) as that which gives a person life or breath. It is possible that Mark adds mind (dianoias) for the sake of his Greek readers, who might not associate the heart with thinking. Strength (ischuos) could refer to anything that gives us power—whether physical strength, beauty, wealth, position, reputation, or talent.

We are to love God with agape (pronounced uh-GAH-pay) love. Agape love is more a “doing” than a “feeling” word, although it involves both. Agape requires action—requires us to demonstrate our love in some practical fashion. The person who loves God will participate in worship—will try to obey God—will seek opportunities to serve God. An athlete who loves God might serve by witnessing to young people. God-loving fathers and mothers will raise their children in the faith. A God-loving businessperson might serve as church treasurer. A God-loving musician might serve using his/her musical talents. All God-loving people have the opportunity to tithe. In any event, agape love requires practical expression.

“The second is like this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (v. 31a). The scribe asked for one commandment but Jesus gives two—binding the two together with the statement “There is no other commandment greater than these” (v. 31b). Jesus’ ability to synthesize these two commandments into one demonstrates his thorough command of the Torah.

These two commandments (love God and love your neighbor) neatly summarize the first and second tablets of the Decalogue (the Ten Commandments). The first tablet emphasizes the person’s relationship to God by requiring loyalty to God (Exodus 20:3), abstaining from idolatry (Exodus 20:4-6), respecting God’s name (Exodus 20:7), and keeping the sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8-11). The second tablet emphasizes the person’s relationship to other people by commanding that people honor father and mother (Exodus 20:12), and abstain from murder (Exodus 20: 13), adultery (Exodus 20: 14), theft (Exodus 20:15), false witness (Exodus 20:16), and covetousness (Exodus 20:17).

The commandment to love one’s neighbor is from Leviticus 19:18, and would come less readily to mind than the commandment to love God. Still, it is in keeping with law and prophets, both of which emphasize right relationships with people as well as with God. Jewish law goes into great detail regarding our behavior in relationship to other people. The prophets go a step further, calling us to compassion and justice even in situations not covered by the law.

Christ calls us to balance these two great commandments. The person who loves God but does not love neighbor is gravely deficient. “If a man says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). That is tough language, given the difficulty that most of us experience with loving certain co-workers, neighbors, family members, or church members.

As envisioned in Leviticus, the neighbor is a fellow Jew. However, in Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) follows immediately after and expands upon Luke’s account of the greatest commandment (Luke 10:25-28). That parable broadens our understanding of neighbor to include those who are far outside our usual circle of friends and associates. Elsewhere, Jesus calls us to love even our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:27-35).

But love for neighbor quickly degenerates into humanism or sentimentalism unless grounded in love for God. Love of God is the first commandment, not the second. Love of God is the foundation upon which all the other commandments depend. “Get the center right and the circumference will come right. Love of God will result in love of neighbor” (Luccock, 846).

Since agape love is action-oriented rather than feeling-oriented, the neighbor-lover will look for practical ways to demonstrate that love:

• At the micro-level, it might mean keeping one’s property neat—or mowing a sick neighbor’s lawn—or driving a car for Meals on Wheels.

• At the mid-level, it might mean contributing money to feed the hungry or working with Habitat for Humanity to build housing for the homeless.

• At the macro-level, it might mean influencing public policy to help needy people get on their feet—or to insure just treatment of vulnerable people—or to insure accountability of politicians, corporate chieftains, and other powerful people.

• At every level, it demands looking beyond one’s self to see the neighbor’s needs and taking action to help with those needs.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 31a). Many a sermon has been preached on loving self as prerequisite to loving neighbor. However, Jesus does not advocate self-love, but simply acknowledges our natural tendency to look out for Number One, asking us to extend that same kind of love to others. Of self-love, Barth says, “God will never think of blowing on this fire, which is bright enough already (from Church Dogmatics, as quoted in Williamson, 228).

Self-esteem is useful, but helping others is the best way to nurture respect for self. That is the principle used by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people for whom nothing else has worked. Most of us have experienced the glow that accompanies doing a good deed. It is, indeed, more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).


32The scribe said to him, “Truly, teacher, you have said well that he is one, and there is none other but he, 33and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding (Greek: suneseos), with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

“Truly, teacher, you have said well that he is one” (v. 32a). The scribe obviously has not come to Jesus with hostile intent, or he would not be so quick to affirm Jesus. In re-stating Jesus’ answer, he changes “soul” and “mind” to “understanding” (suneseos).

“and to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (v. 33). This conversation takes place in the temple, and the scribe is committed to temple worship. He may have come to the temple to make his sacrifice. This gives special weight to his comment that love of God and neighbor is “more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

His comment is in keeping with the prophetic tradition, which has long emphasized a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:16-17), obedience to God (Jeremiah 7:21-23), steadfast love of God (Hosea 6:6), and doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8). However, it is unusual for Jesus to encounter a religious official who would acknowledge that anything is more important than the temple sacrifices.

The epistles continue to emphasize love and to de-emphasize temple sacrifices:

• “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments…are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:8-10).

• Love is more important than sounding brass, the gift of prophecy, charitable giving, or personal sacrifice. “Faith, hope, and love remain—these three. The greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:1-13).

• Love is the first of the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22).


34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

No one dared ask him any question after that.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God” (v. 34a). Is Jesus commending the scribe for his good answer or warning that he still lacks something? Perhaps both! However, this is one of Jesus’ few positive encounters with a member of the religious elite and one of his most positive comments to a member of that group. Jesus tends to reserve positive comments for people outsiders or people in great need (Matthew 8:10; 15:28; Mark 2:5; 5:34; 10:52).

How far is the scribe from the kingdom? The story ends without telling us whether the scribe becomes Jesus’ disciple. We know only that, unlike the rich man who found it too difficult to do what was required to possess eternal life (10:23-25), this man is not far from the kingdom.

It is probably best not to focus too much on the scribe’s eternal destiny—whether he landed on the right side or the wrong side of the line. The heart of this Gospel lesson is found in the demands that it makes on our lives.

“No one dared ask him any question after that” (v. 34b). Jesus has not wounded this scribe with his words, but has answered questions, usually from hostile questioners, with telling effect throughout chapters 11-12. His answer to this scribe makes it clear to his opponents that he is not vulnerable. No contender offers to step forward to go another round with him.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2015 Richard Niell Donovan