How does Jesus summarise the law in Mark 12?

The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday before Advent in Year B is the dialogue that includes Jesus’ summary of the law in Mark 12.28–34. As we count down the lectionary year, preparing to enter Advent with its focus on Jesus’ return, Mark is counting down the days and hours to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. We look in hope for his coming again, but can only do so because Jesus gave himself for us, and defeated the powers of sin and death on the cross, and was raised to give us new life and hope.

We have been here before, and quite recently too; last year, in the last Sunday of Advent, our gospel reading was the parallel passage in Matthew 22. The passage comes in all three Synoptic gospels, though in quite different places. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus is in the temple in the ‘week’ leading to the crucifixion, and it follows the parable of the wicked tenants, (the parable of the great supper in Matthew only), the test question about tribute to Caesar, and the test from the Sadducees about levirite marriage in the resurrection. In Luke, it takes place ‘on the way’, following the mission of the 72, and it leads into the parable of the Good Samaritan.

It is perfectly possible that this question was asked of Jesus more than once; as we shall see below, this was a common concern in Jewish thinking and debate. And we learned two years ago, when reading Luke, that his central section has been arranged more thematically than chronologically; having included it here, he omits it in Luke 20 and moves straight from the question of marriage in the resurrection to the woes against the Pharisees.

Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-31Luke 10:25-28
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

One of the scribes came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him.  To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. 

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

Whilst Matthew makes a point of alternating the attacks on Jesus between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, in Mark the questioner is a ‘scribe’, a member of the professional class who worked with legal documents but also paid close attention to Scripture; during Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, Mark sees the scribes as his main opponents, where Matthew identifies them as Pharisees, and the two groups will have overlapped.

Luke’s inquisitor seems more neutral, even if he seeks to ‘justify’ himself (Luke 10.29). Matthew interprets the question as hostile; the motive is to ‘test’ or ‘tempt’ Jesus (peirazo), the term Matthew has previously used of the Pharisees (Matt 16.1, 19.3) as well as the devil (Matt 4.1) and Jesus has used of them in the previous episode (Matt 22.18). But in Mark there is a more positive exchange, with Jesus and the questioner apparently exchanging as equal participants in the discussion. It is interesting to note that Mark has each party express the answer; Matthew is selective and only has the words on the lips of Jesus, whilst Luke is selective and only has the words on the lips of the questioner.

As is common, Mark’s account of the opening dialogue is longer and more detailed than either Luke or Matthew; Mark includes the introduction to the Shema from Deut 6.4 that Jesus quotes, and Jesus goes on to commend the ‘lawyer’ and note that he is ‘not far from the kingdom of God’, characterising the kingdom as an almost physical space (Mark 12.34). [We need to note the quite different sense of ‘law’ and ‘lawyer’ here; we are looking at a dispute about religious texts, and debates between the religious ‘experts’; and the ‘law’ was the first five books of the Bible, much of which was narrative.] Luke has interpreted this, possibly for an audience less familiar with Jewish theological terms, into the promise that ‘you will live’.

Summarising Scripture is an age-old activity. Andrew Wilson, of NewFrontiers, offers a 12-verse summary of the whole of the Bible here, and I have recently been making use of a very good, short summary of The New Testament in Seven Sentences by Gary Burge. (In fact, Burge actually summarises the NT in seven words, each with a verse attached, which connect the message of the NT with the OT and the whole narrative of scripture: fulfilment; kingdom; cross; grace; covenant; Spirit; completion.) This kind of ‘big picture’ summarising is actually an important part of our ‘biblical literacy’, helping us to read well. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart identified two key skills in reading Scripture in How to Read the Bible for All its Worthto have an overview of the big picture, and to be able to focus on the particulars of any passage, and then in reading well to move between the one and the other.

So it is not surprising that we find, within Scripture itself, summaries of Scripture! In rabbinic discussion (Mak 24a) it was thought that there were summaries in Ps 15 (in 11 points), Is 33.15–16 (in six points), Micah 6.8 (in three), Is 56.1 (in two) and in Amos 5.4b and Hab 2.4b in one. The summary in Micah is well known in Christian reflection:

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8)

and Paul makes key use of the one in Habakkuk 2.4 ‘the righteous shall live by faith[fulness]’ in Rom 1.17 and Gal 3.11. Many Christians have ‘life verses’ or summaries of what they think the good news of God is about, and it might be interesting to compare them!

Rabbi Hillel (living just prior to the time of Jesus) was famously challenged by someone to recite the whole law whilst standing on one leg. He replied:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

This is close to its inverse that Jesus has already offered as a summary earlier in Matthew 7.12 and (in a less Jewish form) in Luke 6.31, though not in Mark:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

It is notable that Jesus offers the positive version, and interesting that, in offering this summary, he appears to side with Hillel (whose rival Shammai refused to answer the man), where in other issues (especially on marriage and divorce) his teaching is closer to the conservative Shammai than the liberal Hillel.

There are several things worth noting about Jesus’ summary.

First, although it is quite different from the other summaries noted above, there is no particular reason to think that it was necessarily unique or original to Jesus. Several other rabbinical summaries have the two-fold focus on God and neighbour, and in fact this matches the ‘two tablets’ of the Ten Commandments, in which the first half is clearly oriented to God, and the second half oriented to social relationships. The Jewish philosopher Philo even appears (in his exposition of special laws Spec Leg 2.63) to suggest that the two tablets of the Commandments had these two concerns as headings on them, so that those who kept the first five commandments were philotheoi (lovers of God) and those who kept the second five were philanthropoi (lovers of people). 

Secondly, unlike either the Golden Rule (in its positive or negative forms) or the summaries in the prophets, Jesus is here summarising the law from within the law. This actually diffuses the differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees, the latter of whom considered Torah alone to be scripture. But it also means that there is no suggestion here that the law is in any way displaced by the teaching of Jesus. Of course, the Golden Rule is very close to the command to love, since though the term is mentioned, this is clearly the motivation for ‘doing unto others…’

As Philip Jenson has pointed out (How to Interpret Old Testament Law) the law material within the Pentateuch varies in its degree of detail and generalisation, so that some regulations are very context specific, whilst others are much more high level and general. A key issue in its interpretation, then, is to note these differences and the relations between the different kinds of laws that we find—which is much more profitable than the traditional but rather arbitrary approach of trying to discern between the sacrificial, ceremonial and moral laws (as set out in Article VII of the Articles of Religion) since these three issues are not neatly compartmentalised in the Pentateuch itself.

Jesus picks out two such summary statements, the first from Deut 6.4 and the second from Lev 19.18. The first of these forms the central confession of Judaism, generally thought in this period to be recited morning and evening by all observant Jews (though there is some debate about when this practice became regular). Jesus is not telling his listeners anything that they do not know, and so here his teaching is in continuity, rather than discontinuity, with accepted practice and priorities. He is calling his fellow Jews back to their biblical roots, not away in some discontinuous new direction.

Thirdly, Jesus is thus offering, from within the law, a hermeneutical principle for reading the law.

They summarise not only the law (which was the question asked) but also the prophets, since the whole scriptural revelation is understood to witness to the same divine will… This does not mean, as some modern ethicists have argued, that ‘all you need is love’, so that one can dispense with the ethical rules set out in the Torah. It is rather to say that those rules find their true role in working out the practical implications of the love for God and neighbour on which they are based (R T France, Matthew NICNT, p 847).

It is surely no accident that Jesus places ‘love of God’ first and ‘love of neighbour’ second; whilst we cannot claim to love God whom we cannot see if we do not love our neighbour whom we can see (1 John 4.20), because of human sin and selfishness, which distorts both our perception and our action, we cannot truly love our neighbour unless we love God and attend to the pattern of life to which he calls us.

Mark and Matthew’s versions of Deut 6.4 follows the Greek translation for the first two aspects (‘heart’ and ‘soul’) though Matthew’s grammar varies slightly, using the Greek en (‘in’) rather than Mark’s ex (‘from’) which is a more literal translation of the Hebrew preposition b–. It is important to note, though, that in Deuteronomy and for Jesus, these terms have a rather different sense from our usual English language assumptions; there is a very good exploration of the meanings of these terms in the Bible Project videos on the Shema, on love, heart, and soul. Mark’s account of Jesus’ summary expands the final term in Deut 6.4, me’od, into two terms ‘mind’ and ‘strength’, and it appears as though Matthew has truncated the last in order to match the original three terms. But me’od is a difficult term to interpret, most usually being used as an adverb to mean ‘very’, and thus having the sense of loving God with all the abundance of things that you are and have. Within the rabbinical tradition, it is sometimes translated as strength, mind or even money—thus pointing to all the resources and power that we have. Again the Bible Project video on this term is excellent.

Thus Jesus’ summary of the law achieves a number of things. First, it connects the ‘vertical’ and spiritual aspects of discipleship with the ‘horizontal’ and social. Christian faith can neither be reduced to a social action movement, nor can it be restricted to the merely religious. The love of God comes first, but (in Matthew’s version) the second ‘is like it’.

Secondly, Jesus’ summary in Mark, by including the fourth term ‘strength’, points to the all-encompassing nature of the call he makes on our lives. New life in Christ, the life of the kingdom of God, comes to us as an unmerited gift, bought for us by the costly price of the life of Jesus—but receiving it makes demands on us too. We only receive this life, or enter into the kingdom, as we take on the well-fitting yoke of Jesus (Matt 11.29) and give ourselves to the love of both God and neighbour.

Thirdly, Jesus leaves us in no doubt that he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. The God who gave the gift of the law to Israel also gives us the gift of Jesus, and we cannot divide the two.

Fourthly, summaries are vitally important and function, like creedal statements, as an interpretive lens through which we can read the details of Scripture. But they are not slogans, and cannot be used in isolation from other parts of Scripture. We are called to love, but to know what that love looks like, we need everything else that Jesus and his apostolic witnesses in the New Testament teach us.

(The picture at top is an extract from ‘The Pharisees question Jesus’ by James Tissot, part of his series on the life of Jesus.)

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2 thoughts on “How does Jesus summarise the law in Mark 12?”

  1. 1 Breaches of the 9 commandments are all breaches of the first (Luther)
    2 * Key images in (Mark’s narratives) are drawn from Israel’s scriptures…indirect and allusive…to shape his narration of the identity of Jesus…
    …we discover numerous passages scattered through this Gospel that offer intimations of a disturbing truth: Jesus Identity with the One God of Israel…the embodiment of God’s presence.
    …. For Mark, the Singular mystery disclosed in the narrative is nothing other than the identity of Jesus himself, the Crucified Messiah … (Crucified One)…who is also paradoxically the embodiment of the God of Israel.* (Reading Backwards, Richard B Hays
    3 Jesus is the One God of the shema, of the first commandment.
    4 Jesus is the one who fulfilled the shema.
    5 Jesus is the (only) one to perfectly love his neighbour (us), even enemies, in his active and passive obedience to death on the cross, in our place.

    Yes, so near yet so far was the scribe? Are we? No mere teacher, is Jesus, no mere exemplar. Do we love him as God? As he loves us?


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