The Bible is the sacred text of all Christians. Although there are differences between the bibles of some Christian denominations, essentially all Bibles are divided into two parts – the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament gives the history of the Israelites, God’s chosen people. It
is filled with myths, stories of love and hate, peace and war, adultery, murder, victory and loss. It also includes stories of Prophets, messengers of God, who came to remind the people of how God expected them to act, but more importantly to foretell the coming of a Messiah who would be a savior to the people. After years of compilation these stories and messages of prophets now make up the Old Testament.
The New Testament is the story of the growth of Christianity, and the coming of the long awaited Messiah. This covers the time shortly before this coming, the birth of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as his life and the lessons he taught during his time on earth. The New Testament also recounts his death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. The rest of the New Testament tells how his followers dealt with his absence, how they carried on his work and spread his message, and waited for the promised “Second Coming” of the Lord.
The New Testament begins with four books called Gospels, which means “Good News”. They are (in order as in the bible): Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John . Although all four gospels recount events of Jesus’ life, the Gospel according to Mark is unique among these four. It is the shortest of all four gospels; however, one of its most important features is that (according to the Two-Source Hypothesis) it is thought that the gospels of Matthew and Luke took much of their information from Mark (as well as another hypothetical source “Q”). There are large sections from these two gospels that are word-for-word exactly as the same as sections are in Mark. This is significant because Mark was believed to be written first, therefore, it is considered to be a “cornerstone” for which the other gospels were built. Although the book does not officially have an assigned author, and it if officially labeled the “Gospel According to Mark”, the author is traditionally thought to be John Mark, a follower of Jesus some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection (most likely between A.D. 55 and 70, since this is the date that the book is thought to be written). John Mark traveled with Jesus’ apostles Peter as well as worked by his side in Rome. It is because of John Mark’s relationship with the apostle Peter that the gospel of Mark is categorized as having apostolic origins, meaning that it was written by either an apostle of Jesus or someone who had a close connection with an apostle. John Mark is also mentioned in some of Paul’s epistles, because he traveled with Paul and Barnabas (who was his cousin). Because of his close relationship with these influential figures in Christian history, particularly Peter the apostle, it is no wonder that the gospel of Mark is a narrative, and even a lot like a biography of Jesus, recounting very detailed events of his life and exact lessons that he taught. While working with Peter he must have been privy to all kinds of stories of the man whom he was so devoted to and for whom he and all other Christians sacrificed so much. He, of course, also heard many stories of Jesus’ teachings, which he and other apostles, disciples, and missionaries were teaching others. One of those stories of Jesus’ message, recounted in the Gospel According to Mark, 12: 28-34, is commonly referred to as “The First Commandment and Greatest Commandment”.
In this narrative gospel of Mark, Jesus is preaching when a scribe ventured to ask him which was commandment was the first, or in other words, which one was most important to follow. His response to “love the Lord with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk. 12:30) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31) is what this passage centers around. At hearing Jesus’ response, the scribe who initially questioned him responded by stating that he knew these things were important above all other things, particularly, “burnt offerings and sacrifices required by the law” (Mk. 12:33). The importance that Jesus sees in understanding and abiding by these commandments is emphasized by the author, John Mark, by writing that when Jesus saw that the scribe understood he told him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”.
The location of this passage in the Bible is not surprising because it is surrounded by passages (particularly in chapters 11 and 12) which are similar in that Jesus’ authority to teach and beliefs are being challenged by the authority figures in the Jewish faith, particularly those who run the Jewish Temple. It is important to notice that Jesus answered by stating not one, but two commandments, that had been given to Moses and the Israelites many years ago – found in Deuteronomy 6:5, as well as in Leviticus 19:18. These passages are in not only what Christians refer to as the Old Testament, but are in the Torah (the sacred scripture of the Jewish faith), which Jesus would have been very familiar with as a practicing Jew. Equally important, is the fact that these passages are based on the core idea of love. As a result of these two details which cannot be overlooked, I think that the message of “The First and Greatest Commandment” is to establish Jesus as the new lawgiver with the message to love God and to love others. We must know and understand these commandments, as well as apply them to our lives, and it is when we are able to do these things, that we may fully enter into the kingdom of God.
When reflecting on Jesus’ answer to the scribe, one must notice that Jesus states two passages from the Old Testament. This may seem insignificant; however, it is highly significant. Also notice that in the surrounding passages, as well as in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the books surrounding the Gospel of Mark, Jesus authority is constantly being questioned and he is being put to the test by Scribes and Pharisees. The Jewish leaders were uncomfortable with Jesus’ practices because he did not follow the Mosaic Law, or Covenant (the set of rules and regulations that strictly guided the Jews “religious and community life and acted as their ‘constitution”, which also includes the Ten Commandments) as strictly as they believed he should. Jesus healed the sick on the Sabbath and ate with sinners and lepers, things that the scribes and Pharisees would never dream of doing. In quoting the sacred texts of the Jews, it was established that Jesus was a devoted, and practicing Jew, something the Scribes may have been confused by, because with his teachings Jesus made a statement to the Jews that he was the new covenant, the new lawgiver. The thought of something with more authority than the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament was highly disturbing to the Jewish leaders because they neither knew, nor wanted another way. The Old Testament can also be referred to as the “Law of Fear and Servitude” because it focuses primarily on rules, laws, and punishments. Jesus came to preach a very different message – one of hope and love, which he summed up in two sentences. That is why the New Testament is referred to as the New Law, or the “Law of Love and Liberty”. As Sullivan explains, this is why St. Thomas Aquinas considered the New Law to be infused, to come from within. The Old Testament was about outwardly appearance, while the New Testament was about individual intimate relationships. Although Jesus certainly taught the importance of obedience to God, he taught that instead it is better to do obey the Lord because of love, not fear of punishment. As a result of that love for the Lord, we are inclined from within ourselves to follow the law of God because we love him (thus, the title “Law of Liberty”). And with that same love, it is only logical that we would treat our neighbors with that same love, as we would want to be treated. Because the New Testament is a reflection on Jesus and his teachings, this passage in Mark is a perfect model of Jesus’ different form of teaching, and how he established himself as the new lawgiver, or new covenant to the people with his message to love God and to love others.
As previously mentioned, the surrounding Gospels of Matthew and Luke also include this same passage; however, they differ greatly, as Agnes Norfleet notes in Between Text and Sermon. In the other gospels, the environment in which Jesus is questioned is very tense, accusatory, and unreceptive. The individuals questioning (more so challenging) Jesus are not questioning in order to receive answers, they are searching for a way to catch Jesus saying something that could be taken in an offensive way to the Jewish faith and tradition, in hopes of convicting him on a charge of blasphemy or another related crime. After hearing Jesus’ response his questioners are merely more aggravated and set on his conviction than before. The same passage, but in Mark, is a great contrast! The environment in Mark is pleasant and accepting.
More importantly, the scribe who questions Jesus reflects on the answer he is given and finds that he agrees. When he states he thinks these commandments must be “more important than the burnt offerings and sacrifices required by the law”, he expresses understanding because he is able to apply Jesus’ message to his own life. Unlike the Jewish leaders in the surrounding books and passages, he is able to see the big picture and look past the “Law of Fear and Punishment” and see the message of “Love and Liberty” that Jesus preaches. This is exactly what Jesus wants all of his followers to do! He wants his followers to take his message and not merely accept it, but to judge for themselves and if in accord, to apply it to their lives! The importance Jesus places on this, as well as the desire he has for us to understand and act on his love is sealed when he tells the wise scribe, “You are not far from the kingdom of God”.
The Gospel of Mark 12:2-34 can be interpreted and debated hundreds of ways, but I believe that the theological message of the passage was to establish Jesus as the new lawgiver, as well as to preach his message: to love God and to love others. Once able do this, his followers would be able to realize that they could live out his message by understanding and applying it to their everyday lives. When his followers could fully live out this “First and Greatest Commandment” they, like the scribe, would be in a place in which they longed to be, and Jesus longs for all of humanity to be, and that is “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
Cory, Catherine A. and David Landry. The Christian Theological Tradition. 2nd ed. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2003.
The International Student Bible for Catholics: New American Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1987.
Norfleet, Agnes W. “Mark 12:28-34.” Interpretation: Between Text and Sermon 51, no. 4 (October 1997): 403-406. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 8, 2008).
Sullivan, S.J., John J. The Commandment of Love: The First and Greatest of the Commandments Explained According to the Teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas. First ed. New York: Vantage Press, 1956.