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Mark 12.28-34
Proper 26 - Year B

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On this All Saints Sunday, one could use this text to talk more about our sainthood as our response to being connected with God. It could also be related to John 11:32-44 (the Gospel for All Saints Day B) by the concept of "love" and how Lazarus' and our lives might be different after dying and being given new life by God through Christ, .and being released from what binds us by others at Jesus' command.

Throughout this text, the word agapao is used for "to love." In John 11, except for v. 5, the word phileo and philos are used (vv. 3, 11, 36). Although the word group phil- can mean "to be friends," it is used as a synonym in John for the word group agap- (see 5:20; 16:27) so that there are no differences in meaning.


This text is the last of a series of controversial questions that are asked of Jesus by different groups:

The scribes question in our text is not posed "to test" Jesus as in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28. According to Juel (Mark, Augsburg Commentaries): "The question is, in fact, a familiar one from Jewish tradition: Is there a way of summarizing the commandments?"

Jesus gives a traditional answer. The first part is from Deuteronomy 6:4-5. (Only Mark quotes v. 4 from the traditional Shema -- "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God: the Lord is one.") The second part is from Leviticus 19:18.

Grammatically, often commands use the imperative verb: "Do this!" "Don't do that!" The only imperative verb in Jesus' answer is "Hear!" It is a present tense imperative, which implies continual or repeated action: "Keep on listening!" "Continue to hear!"

This command to listen is heard frequently in Mark.

The parable of the sower is really about different ways of hearing (4:3-20).

Some other important verse about hearing.

Perhaps the "first command of all" is: "Listen!" Then the statement: "You shall love (future tense verbs) God, neighbors, and self" comes as a response to having heard. Besides being more theological orthodox, I wonder if love can be commanded.

Could you imagine a young couple on their first date. The woman thinks to herself, "I really like this guy. He's so handsome. He's so charming. I wouldn't mind spending the rest of my life with him. What can I do to get him to love me?"

Then you hear the woman say in a stern voice: "I command you to love me. You will marry me. We will live happily ever after."

Would a marriage like that work? Can love be commanded?

When father comes home from work and commands his daughter, "Give me a hug" (with, perhaps, an "or else" implied)! Is that a sign of love? a sign of fear? a sign of obedience? How is that commanded action different from his daughter running up and giving him a hug and saying, "I love you!" without the order?

Can love be commanded? One answer is "no". No command can change one's heart, soul, mind, and strength. Rules might make us act more lovingly towards other people -- and the Greek word agapao implies actions more than emotions -- but commands can't change one's insides.

Another answer is "Yes." The actions, that the word agapao implies, are for the good of the other person. The only other time the word is used in Mark is when Jesus loves the rich man who comes to him seeking to enter the kingdom of God (10:21). Jesus' love for the man didn't cause Jesus to do nice things for him, but to confront him with his idolatry of possessions. Jesus can command us to love our enemies (Mt 5:44). That doesn't mean that we suddenly develop warm, fuzzy feelings toward them; but that we push ourselves to do what is good for them.

A provocative article by William Easum, is called, "On Not Being Nice 'For the Sake of the Gospel'" [published in Net Results/April 1997, and also available on his website]. I quote his opening three paragraphs:

Throughout my consulting ministry, I have seen a disturbing pattern: Most established churches are held hostage by bullies. Some individual or small group of individuals usually opposes the church's making any radical change, even if it means the change would give the church a chance to thrive again.

Courageous pastors often ask, "What do I do when one or two persons intimidate the church so much that it is not willing to try something new?" My response is always "Either convert them, neutralize them, kick them out, or kill them. The Body cannot live with cancer." To which someone usually cries, "That's not very Christian!"

However, my response reflects much of the wisdom of both the Old Testament and Jesus. Maturing Christians love so deeply that they will do anything, even not be nice, "for the sake of the gospel." Jesus was so compassionate toward others that he could not remain quiet when he saw people holding others in bondage.

I think that we have confused "love others" with "being nice." Easum makes this statement -- in boldface -- later in the article:

I'm convinced that one of the main sins of the Church is that we have taught ourselves to be nice instead of Christian.

And still later in the article:

People who would rather be nice than Christian do not love enough. They do not have enough compassion. Instead, they are afraid of hurting someone or of being hurt. But fear is the opposite of love: "Perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).

As commands, these statements about love are Law. From our Lutheran standpoint there are two proper uses of the Law (although many Lutherans add a third use). The civil use keeps order in society. As Christians we respond to this use by obeying the law so that society will be a better and more peaceful place for all. The theological use convicts us of our sinfulness. This command to love God, neighbors, and self does not only tell us what we should be doing, but also indicates what we have failed to do. We are often too fearful to really and toughly love other people. As Christians we respond to this use of the law by repenting of our sins, throwing ourselves upon the mercy and grace of God, seeking forgiveness; and then believing the word of grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ that is spoken to us.

When Jesus speaks in vv. 29-31 he uses the second person singular form of the verbs: "You (singular) shall love...." He is telling this individual what he should do.

When the scribe responds and repeats (pretty much) what Jesus had said -- the response of vv. 32-34 only occurs in Mark -- he makes it impersonal: The great commandment is "to love ...." He doesn't say, "You're right! I should love ...." It seems to me that this discussion about the great commandment was nothing more than an intellectual exercise for the scribe. The commandments didn't necessarily guide his life. They didn't necessarily convict him of sin. They were an interesting topic of discussion. Even Jesus notes that the scribe has answered "wisely" or "thoughtfully" or "intelligently" (nounechos -- a word that is related to the "mind" -- nous).

The scribe points out how these commandments are greater than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices. I doubt that any Jew would have created such an opposition between doing the commandments and offering temple sacrifices. Both are part of obeying what God has said.

There are two situations in Mark's day where this distinction may be significant. 
(1) After the fall of the temple and there could be no more burnt offerings or sacrifices in the temple; how would the Jews live their lives in obedience to God's commands?

(2) Before the fall of the temple, this argument might have been presented as a reason why the Christians did not offer burnt offerings and sacrifices as God had commanded.

Why is this scribe "not far from the kingdom of God" (v. 34)? Why hasn't he entered into the kingdom of God? Jesus had said that one has to receive the kingdom of God as a little child in order to enter it (10:15). Perhaps the scribe was too much of an adult. Jesus had talked about the great difficulties of the rich entering the kingdom of God (10:24-26). Perhaps the scribe was too tied to his wealth -- or his own abilities, to turn his eternal future over to God. "With God all things are possible" (10:27). When Jesus began his preaching career and announced the coming kingdom, he called the people to "repent and believe in the good news" (1:15). Perhaps the scribe was unable to repent -- "I've done nothing wrong" -- or unable to believe the good news -- "I've done too many bad things and can't be helped."

We can also make some conjectures from our text about the shortcomings of the scribe or his theology. (1) Entering the kingdom of God doesn't happen through obedience to the law -- even if it is the greatest commandments. (2) The scribe doesn't seem to have let the commandments do their work in him. He was more interested in discussing God's Word than really hearing that Word and letting it convict him of his sinfulness and show him his need for the good news as revealed in Jesus Christ. (2.5) The commandments as topics of discussion doesn't seem to have motivated the scribe to do deeds of love for others, but just to talk about them. (Although, as I wrote in (1), doing those deeds doesn't buy one entrance into the kingdom, but it can make life a lot better for those being helped.) (3) He wasn't dead enough to have God raise him up from the dead (e.g., the Lazarus text). He wanted to raise himself, perhaps be his obedience to the commandments or by his good mind.

At a past synod's professional leaders retreat, the speaker, Jane Strohl, defined faith as "being empty so God can fill us." This suggests that unfaith is filling ourselves up with something. That something might be positive things: obedience to the law, our goodness, our abilities; or negative things: our sinfulness, our disobedience, our unworthiness, e.g., thinking that we are so filled up with bad stuff that God wouldn't give us anything, rather than an emptiness that receives God's grace.

A final comment about this text comes from Perkins [Mark, the New Interpreter's Bible].

What does it mean for Christians today to say "the Lord our God, the Lord is one"? Most of us do not live surrounded by temples and images of polytheism. Yet we might ask whether we have not given in to another kind of polytheism, a casual pluralism that accepts whatever anyone believes as "okay." Or again, we allow good things that are not ultimate to become the ultimate and defining forces in our lives -- nation, occupation, family, race, political cause, or theological system. [p. 679]

Our sainthood isn't about what we do or try to do. It's about the God -- the one holy God -- who touches our lives with divine love.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901