St. Mark 12:28-34
Background: The Decalogue
The Law of God, which we know as the “Ten Commandments”, is found in two separate accounts in the Pentateuch, the so-called Books of Moses. The first account is Exodus 20:1-17, with a secondary account in Deuteronomy 5:6-21. The influence of Hittite and Mesopotamian law can be found in them, but there is no consensus as to when they were actually written. The first of the commandments are devoted to the worship of God, while the latter are devoted to the ethics of daily life.
There are at least three numbering systems. The Philonic system (named so because it is elucidated in the writings of Philo) is the oldest, and labels verse 3 (in Exodus) as Commandment 1, verses 4-6 as number 2, and so on. Hellenistic Jews, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants use this system. Verse 2 is seen as a preface to the commandments. The second system is the Talmudic from the Talmud, compiled in the 3rd Century. Here, verses 1-2 comprise the first “saying”, and combines the verses 3-6 as the second. The last system is the Augustinian division, which begins with the second commandment of the Talmudic division, and then divides the commandment on coveting into two separate commandments. This version is used by Roman Catholics and Lutherans.
Moses said: Now this is the commandment--the statutes and the ordinances--that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children's children, may fear the LORD your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Following the gift of the Law, or “The Ten Words”, Moses then expands on the import of this gift. It is seen as a preparatory act prior to the entrance of the Israelites into the Land of Canaan. Notice the several comments that deal with the fertility of the people and of the land. Coming from the arid desert, and a nomadic life, the Israelites would soon be culturally challenged by the fertility religion and the Ba’alim of their Canaanite neighbors. Fertility is the gift and blessing of God, and like Hosea, the Deuteronomist wants to make clear the role of YHWH in providing for the people. What follows is a methodology for making the Law the center of life – recitation at all points during the day, the use of phylacteries and mezuzah – all these are to speak to the Jewish life as it is lived moment by moment, day by day. At the heart of this reading is the “Great Shema” – Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” – a creedal statement that to this day defines the foundation of Judaism. What follows is a condensation of the law (Love of God and Neighbor and Self), which Jesus used in teaching the Law to those around him
Breaking open Deuteronomy:
- What role do the Ten Commandments play in your life?
- What role should they play in public life?
- How do your center your life in their precepts?
Psalm 119:1-8 Aleph: Beati immaculati
Happy are they whose way is blameless, *
who walk in the law of the LORD!
Happy are they who observe his decrees *
and seek him with all their hearts!
Who never do any wrong, *
but always walk in his ways.
You laid down your commandments, *
that we should fully keep them.
Oh, that my ways were made so direct *
that I might keep your statutes!
Then I should not be put to shame, *
when I regard all your commandments.
I will thank you with an unfeigned heart, *
when I have learned your righteous judgments.
I will keep your statutes; *
do not utterly forsake me.
This is the first section of the longest psalm in the Bible, and indeed the longest chapter in the Hebrew Scriptures, some 176 lines of poetry. It is a long acrostic, the first word of each section beginning with a succeeding letter of the alphabet. The poem is centered on the Torah, and probably dates from the 7th Century BCE or even later when the Law was reintroduced to the returning exiles. It is profuse with expressions of God’s law and word – way, teaching, decrees, commandments, judgments, statutes, etc. It is an appropriate psalm for the day given the first reading and the Gospel.
Breaking open Psalm 119
- What happiness comes from following God’s will?
- How do you personally know God’s will?
- How is God’s will made known in society?
When Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
We learn a great deal about the Jewish sacrificial system, as the author of Hebrews comments on how the priesthood of Jesus surpasses these acts of the Temple. Many of the holy places that he mentions become analogies for the theological realities that he is hoping to expound. Thus we are given the “Holy Place”, the “Tent”, and the victims of the sacrifice as signs of the perfection of the Christ and the completeness of God. His argument is that the sanctification of the “defiled” is made through the offering of these victims, how much more will the offering of the blood of Christ perfect us in the Spirit.
Breaking open Hebrews:
- Have you made sacrifices in your life?
- What are your thoughts about the sacrifice of Jesus?
- How is your body and life a “holy place”?
St. Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard the Sadducees disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus 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.
It is a temptation to view the Sadducees and Pharisees as a cantankerous lot, constantly pestering Jesus. Actually they were merely doing what the faithful did to rabbis, peppering them with questions about how the Law should actually be lived. Here the argument is about the Law, and which of the precepts of the Law takes precedence. What we are witnesses to is a debate in which Jesus seemingly participates. Jesus quotes the Great Shema (see the first reading above) and its summation of the Law, to which the Scribe adds his own emendation and explanations. Jesus honors his knowledge, and presumably that of the reader who would follow Jesus’ exhortation. The Kingdom of God is close in these musings.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What does it mean to think about Jesus as a rabbi?
- How is Jesus your teacher?
- How do you live out the Great Shema?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.