Here’s the problem with most debates. Usually, a debate consists of two people who disagree with each other and aren’t interested in learning or changing their minds. Neither is really listening to each other; each just wants to catch the other person and vindicate himself.
Up till now in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been confronted by several factions of religious leaders who have no intention of learning from him. They’ve been trying to trap him in his words, to get him to say something unpopular so that the crowds will become disillusioned with him. It’s not working, though. Jesus has outmaneuvered them at every turn, demonstrating his command of scripture, his superior wisdom, and the hypocrisy of their hearts.
What’s about to come, however, is a bit of a respite from all this conflict.
The scribes are teachers of the law of Moses. On the whole, they oppose Jesus (see, for example, Mark 3:22). This scribe is different; he observes the disputes and sees that Jesus has answered his opponents well. So instead of trying to trap him, he decides to see if he can’t learn a few things from this surprising Galilean rabbi. “Which commandment is the most important of all?” he asks Jesus. It’s a fairly common question among Jewish scholars that invites plenty of debate.
Because this scribe has asked a straightforward question, Jesus gives him a straightforward answer. He quotes the Shema, the great commandment from the book of Deuteronomy: “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.”
Now, Jesus isn’t the first Jewish teacher to identify this as the greatest commandment. The Shema was central to first-century Jews just as the Lord’s Prayer is to modern Christians. The Shema establishes that the Lord is the one and only God, and thus he requires the exclusive and complete devotion of his covenant people. The rest of the law merely details what this devotion looks like.
What’s unusual is that Jesus pairs the Shema with a second commandment from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” These two have never been connected to one another in Jewish thought. So not only does God require the self to be devoted to him alone, he also requires a love for one’s neighbor. In other words, you can’t put yourself on a pedestal. The people around you are just as important as you are, and you are therefore to show them the same attention and dedication which you show to yourself and your own goals and dreams. Taken together, these two commandments tear down the citadel of self, the age-old lie that sets one’s self up on a throne where only the Lord belongs.
Now, when this scribe hears Jesus’ answer, a light bulb turns on inside his head. He’s been part of a temple system which emphasizes the importance of ritual sacrifices and ceremonial laws. In contrast, Jesus is saying that love is what God’s law is all about. What the scribe realizes is that Jesus isn’t pulling this idea out of thin air; it’s found throughout the Old Testament. Not only is it taught in the two passages that Jesus mentioned (Deuteronomy 6:4–5; Leviticus 19:18), but in other scripture God has made it clear that he wants loving, devoted, broken-hearted followers more than he wants adherents to a sacrificial system (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalms 40:6–8 and 51:16–17; Hosea 6:6). So the scribe takes Jesus’ teaching and runs with it, saying that love for God and one’s neighbor “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” It’s what’s inside of you that counts more than your religious duties.
Jesus sees that this scribe is connecting the dots. So just as he judged what was the most important commandment, he announces his judgment of the scribe’s spiritual condition: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” This is the highest praise he gives to any of the religious leaders! The scribe hasn’t committed himself to Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God, but all signs seem to indicate that he will.
Now, this story tells us a lot about the law and God’s purpose for it. But don’t forget that Mark’s gospel is about Jesus first and foremost. And what we learn here is that Jesus has the right to judge the very law that God has given, to decide which commandments are most important. He also has the right to judge people as to whether or not they are a part God’s kingdom which is invading the present world.
It’s not insignificant that “after that no one dared to ask him any more questions.” Jesus has demonstrated an unmatched authority and wisdom. He is not to be questioned. Rather, you and I are to live as his disciples, loving God and one another, recognizing him as the Judge of what’s most important.