This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on November 1, 2015.
The scribe’s question about which is the greatest commandment occurs at the end of a battle of wits between Jesus and Israel’s religious intelligentsia (Mark 12:13-13:34). Each move and countermove intended to sharpen an argument, entrap an opponent, or slice through logical fallacies. In this contest, the Jewish establishment puts forward contenders from various teams—Sadducees, Pharisees, Herodians, and legal experts—all attempting to disarm and dishonor this small-town rabbi in front of a big-city crowd.
When we reach the final round of repartee recorded in Mark 12:28-34, what is striking about the exchange between the scribe and Jesus is its positive nature. Their dialogue lacks the rancor characteristic of Jesus’ other encounters with religious leaders throughout the Gospel of Mark. The scribe, a legal expert on the Torah and also on its oral commentary, approaches Jesus not with hostility but with genuine interest evoked after seeing how well Jesus had fared with his previous interlocutors. The civility that characterizes their discussion is an embodiment of the second commandment that Jesus chooses—“You must love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Would that such civility and graciousness in debate were more often encouraged today as an expression of loving one’s neighbor.
But it is the very concept of “neighbor” that confounds us. For us today as well as for the Israelites of the first-century, a “neighbor” is someone who is part of our own community, someone who is like us. Jesus’ expansion of that term to include absolutely everyone, even our most hated ethnic rivals (cf. Luke 10:25-37) and our worst enemies whom he commands us to love (cf. Matthew 5:43-48), explodes all our familiar social structures and realigns our presumed allegiances.
Technology and mass population migrations both have contributed to bringing people in contact with more diversity and have made our lived experiences more pluralistic. How we love others of different cultures and faiths and whether or not we are able to think of one another as “neighbors” will greatly impact the future of our world. When we look at the substance of Jesus’ response—1. Love God with all one’s heart, being, mind, and strength; 2. Love your neighbor as yourself—we see points of agreement that are natural bridges of conversation between Christianity and many neighbor religions. For instance, Islam also celebrates the oneness of God and the importance of loving God above all else while Buddhism emphasizes compassion towards all fellow human beings. Certainly clear communication delivered in a loving manner about differences in the way we love God can be a form of loving one’s neighbor but surely so is acknowledging similarities, celebrating those points of agreement, and building upon what we have in common. Such acts of loving our neighbors can also open doors to more civil inter-religious dialogues and cooperation in tackling some of the world’s pressing problems. As Richard Rohr once said, “When you can see your connection with others before emphasizing your differences, you will be much happier, and it will be a much happier world, too.”
What Jesus was saying was not an incredibly novel concept. Similar summaries of the law were made by his contemporaries, both by those in Palestine and in the diaspora (e.g., T. Iss. 5:2; 7:6; T. Dan 5:3; T. Zeb. 5:1-2; T. Benj. 3:3; Philo, Spec. Leg. 2.62-63). Jesus’ selection of these two commandments also follows Israel’s prophetic tradition. When he commends the scribe’s opinion that to love God and others is better than all the sacrifices, Jesus stands in a long line of prophets before him who prioritized obedience, justice, and love over sacrifice (e.g., 1 Samuel 15:22; Isaiah 1:10-17; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8).
The problem is that we, like the Israelites before us, have a serious hearing and attention deficit problem. One of the most common complaints prophets made against Israel was that they failed to listen. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the first commandment Jesus chooses is known as the Shema, which means “Listen!” The question is whether or not we will choose to listen and learn to put these two love commandments into practice today.
Even if we do listen, however, we are still left with the incredibly difficult task of application. What Jesus does is both to simplify and to complicate matters all at once. Boiling all the Law down to only two commandments certainly does make them easier to remember, but providing two general guidelines without offering specific implementations makes applying them incredibly more complex. Discerning how to love one’s neighbor in different contexts and situations requires a great deal more wisdom and interpretation than does a law about paying back five head of cattle for one stolen ox (Exodus 22:1). One can see the attraction in the 613 commandments found in the Torah because of the concreteness of many of them. They are easy to understand and do not require a great deal of thought, only obedience.
But what does it look like to love one’s neighbor in different situations for which there is no legislated precedent? Does the application of that love commandment change depending on different cultural contexts that we find around the world and now in our own backyards? Additionally, are there ever any hard and fast implementations of this law since each human is unique with a distinct personality and set of problems? This commandment requires infinitely more thought and discernment than most of the 613.
When we turn to the NT letters, we see a glimpse of early Christians wrestling with these very questions on how to apply such a general law in particular cases. Paul, for example, reasons that different approaches to the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols may be required depending on the audience. The act of eating when among one crowd may be freely done in love while amongst others it is an unloving act that may lead to a fellow believer’s downfall (1 Corinthians 8). Loving one’s neighbor as a particular person and in a particular context certainly calls for a great deal of discernment and prayer.
Dr. Meg Ramey
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Messiah College, Grantham, PA
Tags: neighbor, love, civility, graciousness, cross-cultural communication, inter-religious dialogue, commandments