The journey to God's mountain, 6:1-10:52

2. The blindness of Israel exposed, 12:13-44

iii] The question concerning the greatest commandment


While debating with the religious authorities in the temple precincts, a scribe, impressed by Jesus' answers, asks him a question concerning the greatest of all the commandments - which is the most important? Jesus answerers with two quotations from the Old Testament, Deut.6:4f, and Lev.19:18 - faith in the one God, with the duty of wholehearted love both to God and mankind.


None are righteous, no not one.


i] Context: See Mark 11:27-33.


ii] Structure: The great commandment:

A scholastic dialogue.

the opening question and answer, v28-32;

the Scribe's response, v32-33;

Jesus' response, v34.


iii] Interpretation:

In this, the next question-answer dialogue, Jesus is asked a key question concerning the Mosaic Law - which is prwth, "first, prominent, most important?" In reply, Jesus provides a commonly held summary of the Law, namely, love God, love neighbour, cf., Lk.10:25-28.

The religious teacher is encouraged by Jesus' answer, repeating, in similar fashion, his own understanding of God's "first" law. To this Jesus replies "you are not far from the kingdom of God." Those who watched on were left stunned.

It is likely that this righteous man thought his righteousness had already secured his position in the kingdom, so being told he was "not far from" it, is by no means good news. Mark again reminds us of the nomism of religious Israel and their failure to recognise that none are righteous, no not one. In so doing, we are again confronted by the fact that righteousness can neither be secured nor maintained by obedience to the law; the gospel of grace is the only answer to the human condition.


iv] Synoptics:

Matt.12:34-40, cf., Lk.10:25-28. Mark provides a fuller account of the tradition than Matthew, while Matthew emphasises the context of controversy - "one of them tried to catch him out." Matthew leaves out the mirrored response of the righteous man, as well as Jesus' reply, "you are not far ....." Matthew either excises these elements from the Markan tradition, given the context of controversy, or they weren't present in his received tradition.

This episode is not recorded in Luke's account of the Messiah in the temple, 19:45-21:38. Luke and Mark parallel their accounts from the cleansing of the temple: there is the question of authority; the parable of the defiant tenants; the question on tribute; the question on the resurrection; [in Mark, the question on the greatest commandment]; David's greater son; the warning about Israel's teachers; the widow's offering. Finally, both end with the prophecies concerning the destruction of the temple. So, why does Luke not record the question on the greatest commandment?

The answer possibly lies, on the surface at least, with the questioner and the question seemingly genuine, while the other episodes in this section show the piety of religious Judaism tainted by hypocrisy and facing judgement - the interpretive implication being that church leaders today can catch the same disease. So, did Luke leave out of his gospel an episode where Jesus seemingly praises a scribe? Of course, as already noted, Mark includes this episode because it actually exposes the scribes state of loss. He, like all Israel, stands condemned by the very law he thought confirmed his covenant standing before God.

Of course, Luke, like Mark, doesn't miss the point of this summary of the Law of Moses. He uses it with the parable of The Good Samaritan, along with Jesus' words, "Do this and you will live", Lk.25-37. As my uncle one said to me, after I had just pointed out to him that he had cut the last studs a foot short, "there was only ever one good carpenter, and they crucified him!" Who dares claim that they can "Go and do likewise"?


v] Exposition: A simple verse-by-verse exposition of this passage can be found in the pew-level sermon notes The Great Commandment.

Text - 12:28

The question concerning the greatest of all the commandments, v28-34. i] The opening question and answer, v28-32. Religious Judaism in the first century had identified 613 individual commandments of the Law. Much time was spent grading them according to importance, and this because keeping them maintained a person's place in the kingdom. In response to the question as to the number one law, Jesus gives a summary of the whole law. This summary is based on Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. It was a commonly used summary at this time, eg. "Love the Lord and the neighbour", Testament of Issachar. Jesus begins by quoting the Shema' - obedience rests on a knowledge of the unique character of God and of his covenantal love toward Israel. Then he quotes the law itself. God demands of his people a total devotion and commitment of their life to Him, as well as devoted care toward a neighbour. Although Leviticus 19:18 confined love to "the sons of your own people", Jesus has already widened the ideal of love to include everyone. Only the hardness of the human heart limits love.

eiJV "one" - one. Equivalent to an indefinite pronoun, "a certain one" = "a scribe", Moffatt.

twn grammatewn (euV ewV) gen. "of the teachers of the law" - of the scribes. The genitive is adjectival, partitive.

proselqwn (prosercomai) aor. part. "came" - having come, approached. The participle is adverbial, probably temporal; "Then a scribe came up", Moffatt. It stands in parallel with two other participles, akousaV, "having heard", and idwn, "having seen", all attendant on the main verb ephrwthsen, "asked". This rather awkward construction (a Markan trait, so Turner) prompts numerous translations, but the point is clear enough.

akousaV (akouw) aor. part. + gen. "and heard" - having heard [them]. Moffatt treats the participle as adjectival, limiting "a scribe", so forming a relative clause, "who had listened to the discussion", but it doesn't stand in agreement with "the scribe." So, adverbial, temporal; see above. Note that the verb "to hear" takes a genitive direct object, as here; autwn, "them"

suzhtountwn (suzhtew) gen. pres. part. "debating" - debating, arguing, discussing. The participle serves as the genitive complement of the genitive direct object "them" standing in a double genitive construction and asserting a fact about the direct object "them".

idwn (eidon) aor. part. "noticing" - having seen. "See", in the sense of "understand." The participle is again adverbial, usually treated as temporal, "When he heard Jesus give a good answer", CEV. Given the string of adverbial clauses, it makes sense to head toward an attributive modifier limiting "a scribe", although it doesn't stand in agreement with the genitive "scribe"; "Now there was a certain expert in the law who had heard them dispute with one another and who realised how well Jesus had answered them", Cassirer.

oJti "that" - that. Introducing an object clause / dependent statement of perception expressing what the scribe heard / noticed.

autoiV dat. pro. "them" - [he answered] them [well]. Dative of direct object of the apo prefix verb "to answer."

poia "which" - [asked him] of what kind of. Probably here functioning as an interrogative pronoun, "what / which?"

prwth adj. "the most important" - [is] the first, prominent [commandment]. Predicate adjective.

pantwn gen. adj. "-" of all. The genitive is adjectival, partitive. The sense is unclear, although probably "the first of all the commandments" is intended.


Jesus answers by quoting the Shema, Deut.6:4.

oJti "-" - [jesus answered] that. Here serving to introduce a dependent statement of direct speech, or more particularly, a quote.

prwth adj. "the most important one" - first [is]. Attributive adjective limiting an assumed "commandment". "The commandment that takes priority over all the others", Barclay.

kurioV oJ qeoV hJmwn "the Lord our God" - [hear israel] lord god of us. Technically oJ qeoV, "the God [of us]", stands in apposition to kurioV, "Lord", but a verb may be implied, "The Lord is our God."

kurioV eiJV estin "the Lord is one" - one lord is. The clause may be translated differently: "is one Lord", "the Lord is one", or "is the only Lord." The difficulty lies in whether God's person is being described, or whether his relationship with Israel is being described. So, Moffatt has "the Lord is our God, the Lord alone", underlining the Lord's relationship with Israel. Yet, it seems more likely that divine uniqueness is being proclaimed; "the Lord our God is the one Lord", REB.


agaphseiV (agapaw) fut. "love" - [and] you shall love [the lord the god of you]. The future is volitive, expressing the Hebrew imperfect, and thus serving as a command. What does it mean to "love" God? Loving the neighbour is probably best understood in the terms of acting with compassion toward the neighbour, but what of God? Is it commitment? Taylor notes that this is the only passage in the synoptic gospels that speaks of human love toward God. Moffatt notes the reticence of NT writers to use love-language in addressing God. At least we can say that "it is a love which makes decisions and acts, and is not a mere feeling", Cranfield.

ex + gen. "with" - out of, from. Expressing source / origin. Indicating that our response to God should come from within us rather than be just a superficial doing.

oJlhV adj. "all" - whole, all. Underlining the complete response of obedience demanded by God, an obedience in response to his prior love.

thV kardiaV (a) "heart" - of the heart [of you]. In Hebrew thought, the centre of our intellectual processing.

thV yuchV (h) "soul" - [and out of, from whole] of the soul [of you]. Inner being.

thV dianoiaV (a) "mind" - [and from whole] of the mind, thought, intention, intelligence, understanding [of you]. Mark changes the LXX quote here adding this word, obviously to underline the importance of rational thought in the process of obedience, Thus he removes the possible confusion caused by the word "heart", which in Greek thought takes on an emotional function, as distinct from the Hebrew understanding of the "heart" as primarily a rational organ.

thV iscuroV (uV uoV) "strength" - [and from whole] of the strength, might [of you]. Mark uses "strength" instead of the LXX "power."


deutera adj. "the second" - a second [is this]. Predicate nominative. The "first" includes an integral second command. Jesus' linking of the two is not original, but the perfection he demands of them is. His unique "completing" of the law serves to expose sin and thus the need for divine mercy.

ton plhsion adv. "neighbour" - [you shall love] the one near = neighbour [of you]. Adverb is used here as a substantive. "Neighbour" in Hebrew means "fellow citizen / friend / other person." A wide sense is clearly intended in scripture, for love even extends to the alien and traveller within ones gates. "Love others as much as you love yourself", CEV.

wJV "as" - as, like [yourself]. Comparative. For meaning it may be worthwhile repeating the verb as in the CEV above. The issue of self-love is raised in this verse. Commentators argue that Jesus has either endorsed self-love, or has not actually addressed the issue at all, and so neither endorses, nor condemns. Surely self-love is an amoral natural human trait. Psychologically it would be difficult for a person to love others if they didn't first love themselves, in which case, Jesus assumes the obvious. "In the same way we care for our own welfare, let us care for the welfare of others."

toutwn gen. pro. "than these" - [greater] than these [there is not another commandment]. Genitive of comparison after the predicate adjective meizwn, "greater". "These are the two commandments which take priority over all others", Barclay.


ii] The Scribe's response, v32-33. The teacher affirms Jesus' use of the Shema. In line with Exodus 20:7 he does not use the divine name. He adds The phrase "and there is no other beside him", Deuteronomy 4:35. He also affirms Jesus' summary of the Law, making the point that the love of God and neighbour is far superior to cultic sacrifices, specifically whole burnt offerings. Religious Judaism would often rate cultic sacrifice above care toward a neighbour, even though the teaching of the Old Testament on this matter was well understood, cf., 1Sam.15:22, Hos.6:6. None-the-less, the ethical superiority of benevolence over cult is not a radical idea. Verses 32-34 are peculiar to Mark.

kalwV adv. "well said" - [and the scribe said to him] well [teacher]. Predicate adverb, probably used as an exclamation, cf., NRSV, Moffatt.., but possibly to be taken with "said", "truly, Master, thou hast well said", Cranfield, cf., RV. "You are absolutely right", Phillips.

ep (epi) + gen. "[you are right] in [saying]" - upon [truth you say]. Here expressing cause / ground; "on the basis of the truth you just said, namely that ....", possibly, "in accordance with truth", TH.

oJti "that" - that. Introducing a dependent statement of indirect speech, stating, expressing what Jesus said, but rephrased in quote form, with the issue of importance explained.

eiJV "[God is] one" - one [there is]. Predicate nominative. "God" is understood, and is unstated in typical Jewish style.

plhn + gen. "but" - [and there is not another] except, only [him]. Here expressing an exception.


to agapan (agapaw) inf. "to love" - [and] the to love [him from whole of the heart and from whole of the intelligence and from whole of the strength and] the to love. This articular infinitive, along with its modifiers, as well as its second use with its modifiers, stands as the subject of the verb to-be; "to love with all ......, and to love your neighbour ..... is more important ...." As a whole, the clause is recitative, continuing the object clause / dependent statement of command, introduced by oJti in v32; "you are right in saying that ....... [you are] to love him with all [your] heart greater." A "love toward God that involves the totality of our thinking, understanding and strength ..... far outweighs ...."

thV sunesewV (iV ewV) "understanding" - the intelligence, understanding, sagacity. As with v30, this word serves to exegete the sense of "heart" and is not found in Deut.6:5, although here it does serve to replace "soul". "All our heart, mind and strength", CEV.

perissoteron (perissoteroV) comp. adj. "more important" - [is] more exceeding, more abundant, much more. This comparative adjective serves as the predicate of the verb to-be. The word is not as strong as Jesus' "greater". See note v34. Far outweighs", Barclay.

pantwn gen. adj. "all" - than all. The genitive is ablative, of comparison.

twn oJlokautwmatwn (a) gen. "burnt offerings" - of whole burnt offerings. The genitive is adjectival, partitive / wholative. Animal sacrifices where the whole carcass is consumed by fire. The scribe is not denouncing the sacrificial system, rather "what he does is to assert the supremacy of love of God and man over the cultus", Taylor.

qusiwn (a) gen. "sacrifices" - [and] of sacrifices. General sacrifices where the flesh was eaten by the worshippers.


As is always the case, Jesus' concluding saying / pronouncement / punch-line, is crucial to our understanding of the episode. The problem is that we cannot read Jesus' body language, or tonal inflections, so is Jesus being complementary, or sarcastic? Commentators tend to think Jesus is being complementary, so:

Lagrange, "he almost has the necessary disposition to receive the gospel";

Cranfield, "the scribe's unreserved acknowledgement of the demands of God's law without any attempt at evasion or at self-justification indicated a certain openness and humility before God";

Rawlinson, "you come near possessing the qualifications needed for entry into the kingdom of God";

Johnson, "Jesus recognises him as genuinely religious";

Lane, "these verses record the approving response of the scribe and Jesus' recognition of his favourable disposition in the perspective of the Kingdom of God";

So also Taylor, France, Gundry, Anderson, Marcus and Evans.

Yet, as already noted, it is quite possible that Jesus is being ironical, so Edwards. The context of this episode records Jesus' ongoing conflict with the religious authorities and his critical analysis of the religion of Israel; they are blind guides leading the people to destruction. So, given the context of the episode, it is unlikely that Jesus is being complementary.

It is likely that the scribe's question is antagonistic (Matthew notes this fact in his record of the tradition), and it is possible that his reply to Jesus actually moves from Jesus' uncompromising demand for perfection. The scribe's answer may have been intelligent, but he still remains outside the kingdom, and thus, like all humanity, is lost. Being just out, is as good as being a long way out - a miss is as good as a mile. If Jesus' response was positive and affirming, why would no one dare ask him any more questions? Finally, the fact that Luke drops this episode in his account of the messiah's temple discourse, indicates that, on the surface at least, Jesus' words on the greatest commandment seem out of place. Of course, they are out of place if Jesus did actually "commend" the scribe, but definitely not if in fact he condemned him with faint praise.

idwn (eidon) aor. part. "when [Jesus] saw" - [and jesus] having seen. The participle is adverbial, probably serving to introduce a temporal clause, as NIV.

auton "-" - him. An example of a hyperbaton where the subject or object of a subordinate clause is displaced such that it becomes the subject or object of another clause, usually, as here, the main clause. Common in Aramaic, but also found in Greek. Some texts try to sort Mark's grammar out by dropping the pronoun. So, read as "when Jesus saw that he."

oJti "that" - that. Introducing an object clause / dependent statement of perception expressing what Jesus saw. Decker suggests that it is epexegetic, specifying the accusative auton, "him", although this would not be the case if we read auton as the accusative subject of the subordinate clause; see auton above; "when Jesus saw that he ...."

nounecwV adv. "wisely" - [he answered] wisely, thoughtfully, with understanding, sincerely, discreetly, with good sense. Modal adverb modifying the verb "he answered." This is the only use of this word in the NT, and is not necessarily a commendation. "In a manner that showed he had a mind", Gundry.

makran adv. "[not] far from" - [said to him, you are not] far away, far off. Here the accusative of the noun is used as a predicate adverb. Possibly, "not far from the kingdom", in the sense of, "not far from the person and teaching of Jesus in whom the kingdom is manifested", so Cranfield, Edwards. Possibly of the future manifestation of the kingdom in the last day, although it is unlikely that Jesus is confirming the scribe's membership in the heavenly kingdom. Probably a spatial sense is intended where the kingdom is a now/not yet reality which a person may enter, the entry of which is accessible to the scribe, as it is accessible to all humanity. Of course, the trick is knowing how to get in, and given the scribes question and response, not only is he not in, he hasn't got the faintest idea of how to get in. "Within reach", Dodd.

apo + gen. "from" - from. Expressing separation; "away from."

tou qeou (oV) gen. "of God" - [the kingdom] of god. As already noted, the genitive here prompts numerous translations, eg., adjectival, possessive, "God's kingdom"; attributive / idiomatic (verbal, subjective), "the kingdom which God rules over." For "the kingdom of God" see Mk.1:15.

oudeiV ouketi "from then on no one" - [and] no one any longer. This emphatic double negative serves to underline Jesus' victory in his debate with the religious authorities, and is further evidence that this particular interchange is not as positive as first seems.

eperwthsai (eperwtaw) aor. inf. "[dared] ask" - [was daring] to ask = question [him]. This infinitive is complementary, completing the sense of the verb "to dare."


Mark Introduction



[Pumpkin Cottage]