Year B: Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Greatest Commandment

Mark 12:28-34

One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe said to him, “Well said, teacher. You are right in saying, ‘He is One and there is no other than he.’ And ‘to love him with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself’ is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And when Jesus saw that [he] answered with understanding, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Loving from the head or the heart. In what ways do you love God with all your heart?
  2. Have you always understood that worship unaccompanied by love of neighbor is not pleasing to God? What are the ramifications of this teaching in your life?
  3. How do you experience God’s law as “written on your heart”? What examples can you give?
  4. What is your relationship with the Law? Are you overly rule bound, or are you able to move within the Law and beyond the Law?
  5. Describe a situation where the law was insufficient, and you had to move to the heart in discerning what action to take?

Biblical Context

Mark 12: 28-34
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

The story of the scribe who came to Jesus is one of the most inconclusive incidents of Mark’s Gospel. It’s almost as if Mark set us up for confusion. As soon as we hear that a scribe came to ask Jesus a question, we are ready for a clash of intellects and religious outlooks. In language that sounds very much like the tests others put to Jesus, this man asks Jesus’ opinion about which of God’s commands is the most important. Surely, this is a trap!

The scribe’s question was a topic of popular debate. It is said that in those days a questioner challenged Hillel and Shammai, the two great rabbis of the early first century, to teach him the entire Torah while he stood on one leg. Hillel replied, “Do not do, to your neighbor what is hateful to you; this is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary.” (See R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, A Commentary on the Greek Text.)

Jesus did not quote Hillel but went to Scripture. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, a prayer/teaching that serves as something like a hinge between the commandments and all the regulations intended to flesh them out. It is also the oldest prayer formula in the scriptural tradition. As such, Jews were supposed to recite it every morning and evening. Deuteronomy 6:7-9 tells people to teach it to their children, to bind the prayer as a symbol on their hand and forehead, and to inscribe it on their doorposts. This prayer/creed would be etched deep in every faithful person’s consciousness and have a subconscious effect stronger than any 21st century advertising. It is no wonder that Jesus could respond so quickly and unequivocally to the scribe’s question.

But then, Jesus added another citation, revising Hillel, he quoted Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Although Mark doesn’t finish the quotation, almost everyone who heard it would have known that the last words of that command were, “I am the Lord.”

In response to the scribe, Jesus combined two of the popular schools of thought of his day, implicitly connecting heaven and earth, love of God and love of neighbor as two inseparable dimensions of a life of faith. The Lord in whom the people believed, who gave them their identity as a people, demanded that they treat one another with the same attitude of love that they were to show the God who gave them life.

In what is a unique situation in the Gospel, the man who had questioned Jesus went on to affirm Jesus’ response and to add a bit of his own commentary. It may have still been a battle of wits as the scribe showed his command of Jesus’ response by adding that “to love your neighbor … is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Nevertheless, Jesus had the last word when he told the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

Why only “not far”? The answer might be in Jesus’ assessment of the scribe’s response. Mark tells us that Jesus saw that he answered, “with understanding.” The word “understanding” here has to do with the head more than the heart, an exercise of the intellect that need not imply commitment. Judged on the first quote from Deuteronomy, the scribe had mastered the “soul” or mind, but he had yet to demonstrate how his knowledge would issue forth into action.

We don’t know the end of the story. Did the scribe go away content with his doctrinal correctness or did he take the next step? All we know is that if we ask Christ what we should do, the answer will call forth our whole heart and soul and strength. That is probably why Mark concluded by saying, “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”

 Writing on the Heart

John Shea

In the Book of Jeremiah, God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord/ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:33-34). The Law had previously been written on stone tablets. People had to look outside themselves to see what to do. They were quick to say, “I don’t know that law.” Now since the Law and the Lawgiver will be in their hearts, all will know God. The proper flow will be established, from inner realization to outer action.

This inner consciousness of love of God and neighbor has priority because there are not enough laws to cover the territory of the human. Six hundred is just a start. There are an endless variety of human situations, and within that endless variety there is endless nuance. Laws are unable to foresee everything and predict proper behavior. But people who are equipped with a steady, loving interior will find a way to embody that love in the unforeseeable situations of life.

In my old neighborhood there was a steady stream of mentally ill and handicapped people who would beg. One man who had no legs below the knees would sit outside Walgreens. He would arrive in his wheelchair and, with powerful upper body strength, lift himself out of the chair and onto the ground. He did this in winter as well as summer. A large plastic cup was positioned between the stubs of his knees.

I always gave him some money, usually on my way out of Walgreens. Then one day as I was approaching the store, I saw a woman squatting down next to him and talking with great animation. As I turned going to the store, I heard her say, “So you haven’t always lived in Chicago?” She was inquiring about his life, caring for him in a personal way. My dollar or two tossed in his cup seemed impersonal, even demeaning. But more to the point, how did she come upon this generous form of presence? There were no laws to guide her. But I think there was an inner consciousness of love that bumped into a situation and found away to express itself. Love of the transcendent God makes us one with our neighbor, but it does not tell us what to do in every situation. But if we can hold onto the consciousness, a way will open, a way impossible to forecast, a way beyond prescription.

Dr Frederic Craigie makes the same point when he tells the story of an oncology nurse who was working with a cancer patient. The patient was experiencing many painful losses and was on the verge of despair. The nurse was not able to get the man to talk at any length. Not knowing what to do, she invited him to go for a walk in the garden outside the facility. On the ground was a dead butterfly. Without comment she picked up the butterfly and gave it to him. This opened the man up and he began to talk about his life. Craigie comments:

Taking a walk and picking up the butterfly are creative processes that are not deduced from a model. Certainly, there is no psychotherapy algorithm which says, “go outside, find a dead animal, and give it to the patient.” To the extent that what we as would-be healers do is inductive and creative, it places a premium on our ability to be open to inspiration, or in-spirit-ing. It places a premium on our spiritual wellbeing, and on our ability to be receptive to the movement of the Spirit in using us in sometimes, unforeseen ways as agents of change and healing.

The Spirit and Work: Observations about Spirituality and Organizational Life,” Journal of Psychology and Christianity 18 [19991 43-53) (Frederic C. Craigie, Jr.,

A consciousness in tune with God and neighbor is alert to possibilities that no law could ever foresee. But this inner consciousness of love of God and neighbor also has priority because there are many laws that do cover a lot of territory. But with what consciousness is the action being performed? Both where there are no laws and where there are many laws, the question of the proper flow from inside to outside is important. If God writes the double commandment to love in our hearts and we learn how to read it daily, we move within the Law and beyond the Law.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.