They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52 – NRSV)One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. (Mark 12:28-34 – NRSV)
Similar reports are found in Matthew 22:35–40 and Luke 10:25–28. However, Matthew and Luke refer to the man as a “lawyer” and they omit the part where Mark says the Scribe agrees with Jesus and is praised by him. It is a more polemical and confrontative exchange in Matthew and Luke. And Luke says it is the “lawyer” rather than Jesus who recalls the Shema.
One commentator writes of this passage in Mark: “As with each of the previous questions Mark specifically mentions the questioner’s approach to Jesus (cf. 11:27; 12:13–14, 18); Jesus, the teacher in the temple, is the fixed point while others come and go. But whereas other questions have been posed by groups, giving the impression of official delegations, this comes from an individual, and it soon becomes clear that his attitude is not that of the majority of the (religious authorities). He comes already favourably disposed towards Jesus, and leaves even more so. Such an open-minded enquirer prefigures the minority support which Jesus and his followers will find even in the Sanhedrin (15:43; Acts 5:33–39; cf. Jn. 7:50–51; 19:38–40). His favourable impression derives from listening to the previous dialogues. Kalos (καλῶς) in this context means not just ‘cleverly’ (so as to escape the intended trap or even to win the argument), but that Jesus’ answers have been good, wholesome, satisfying, leading the scribe to hope for an equally enlightening (not just clever) answer to his own more fundamental question” (R T France, The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text, Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002, 478-479).
“Which commandment is the first of all?”: “The rabbis would later count 613 commandments in the Torah—248 of them positive in form and 365 negative in form. They also debated about the distinction between ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ commandments (see Matt 5:19). The ‘first’ or most important commandment was a common topic in Jewish circles and it is reasonable to assume that a teacher like Jesus would be asked for his response as a matter of course” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 354).
Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one: Jesus recalls the fist words of the Shema, the prayer said by pious Jews then and now. The complete prayer is found in three separate places in the Hebrew Scriptures – Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21; Numbers 15:37–41. The word translated as “Lord” in Deuteronomy 6:4, is the same word – YHWH – we find in the description of the revelation to Moses on Horeb – see Exodus 3:14. This reference suggests that all the commandments derive from and take us back to the “Lord”. Thus our love should be total – “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. This love will bring us into the world with a particular disposition – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – see Leviticus 19:18. In other words, the relationship with God provides the context for our lives, defining our being in the world. Although the Leviticus understanding of “neighbor” suggests kin and people of one’s tribe, Jesus certainly extends that – see for example the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37, which follows immediately on Luke’s reporting of this interchange.
NOTE: On June 29, 2008, the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship issued a directive that the use of the word ‘Yahweh’ in the Roman Catholic liturgy should be dropped in faithfulness to the Hebrew tradition and the practice of the early Church.
much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices: The Scribe is very much in tune with Jesus’ thinking. He follows Jesus’ train of thought and adds this reference to “offerings and sacrifices”. There is evidence of this kind of thinking in the Hebrew Scriptures – se for example 1 Samuel 15:22, Hosea 6:6 and Proverbs 21:3.
“You are not far from the kingdom of God”: This has echoes of Jesus’ earlier encounter with the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:25-34), the little children (10:13-16), his approval of the rich young man (10:21) and his response to the blind man he cured at Jericho (Mark 10:46-52). Right at the beginning of his Gospel, Mark has told us that Jesus began his ministry with this message: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Here is a rule of thumb when reading the Hebrew Scriptures: Nothing is written before the Exodus Event, everything is written after it and in the light of it. A similar rule of thumb can be followed when reading the Christian Scriptures: Nothing is written before the New Exodus (Jesus’ Passover), everything is written after it and in the light of it. In both instances there is the same fundamental truth revealed: God is at work and is being revealed through that work! God’s work is an expression of Infinite Love. God seeks us out – each of us – to love us into freedom. That is God’s initiative, it is unmerited and utterly incomprehensible. In practical terms this means that God is asking us every moment of every day: “Will you let me love you?” That is to be remembered and never forgotten.
In the Jewish tradition there is a special prayer to help them remember. It is called the Shema. The title of the prayer is taken from the first Hebrew word – “Hear”. The prayer is repeated daily. In today’s Gospel – Mark 12:28-34 – Jesus quotes the beginning of that prayer when asked which commandment is first of all: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 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.”
In a celebrity culture such as ours, forgetfulness is a distinct possibility. The over-arching narrative of Infinite Love, of a God who has lived and acted in our world for us, is easily forgotten. Remove God and gods of one kind or another will fill that vacuum. Idolatry can then become an ever-present but largely unacknowledged feature of our culture. We find a tragic and deeply sad example of this idolatry – and its destructive consequences – in the lives of celebrities when they care to be honest about their lives. Listen to the words of Marilyn Monroe as reported by one of her biographers: “A month before she died, sitting with the head of the studio at Twentieth Century-Fox, Peter Levathes, Marilyn offered a sad commentary on herself. ‘I’m a failure as a woman,’ she said. ‘My men expect so much of me, because of the image they’ve made of me and that I’ve made of myself, as a sex symbol. Men expect so much and I can’t live up to it. They expect bells to ring and whistles to whistle, but my anatomy is the same as any other woman’s. I can’t live up to it’.” (Anthony Summers, Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Victor Gallancz, 1985, 367.) Marilyn Monroe – aka Norma Jeane Mortenson – died at the age of 36 from an overdose of barbiturates in Los Angeles on August 5, 1962. Her death was classified officially as ‘probable suicide’. Death – whether it be death in life or the termination of life – is the inevitable outcome of idolatry.