This week’s reading offers a much needed opportunity to focus on the faithfulness that Christians and Jews have always shared in common, something that Christians, in particular, seem to have forgotten all too frequently.* Here’s what we Christians need especially to notice:
Many Jewish leaders agreed with the spirit of Jesus’ teaching. Yes, Mark mentions only one Torah scholar (“scribe”). But we now need to recognize that many other Jewish leaders in Jesus’ time were offering similar teachings. This scribe represents a whole movement within the formation of early Judaism. And he already knows what Jesus tells him. He asked Jesus about the Great Commandment because he wanted to see if Jesus knew what he and his movement already knew.
Jesus’ creed was the Jewish creed. In Judaism the Great Commandment is called the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-5): “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” (that’s a translation of Mark’s translation). It’s the fundamental faith statement (or creed) recited every week in synagogue worship (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3198398/jewish/What-to-Expect-at-Shabbat-Morning-Synagogue-Services.htm). Jesus acknowledges it as his own creed too.
Loving God by loving neighbors was also a Jewish idea. To the Shema Jesus adds Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Again, other early Jewish writings made this connection: “I loved the Lord with all my strength; likewise, I loved every person with all my heart” (Testament of Issachar 5:2). So to repeat, Jesus was standing with a movement within early Judaism.
This connection, loving God and all others, was an implication of the Shema: Adding Leviticus 19:18 made that explicit, but it was already implied, because the oneness of God in creation and reconciliation is an affirmation of our own fundamental oneness. It affirms our differences, to be sure. That’s what creation is all about. (Christians could add that this is also what the Trinity is all about, but Jews have developed their own ways of recognizing God’s diversifying unity.) But the Shema also affirms our fundamental oneness. We are all differing versions of one another, so we can never separate loving ourselves from loving others—all others.
Whoever is drawn to live this is “not far from the reign of God.” That applies to Christians, Jews, and all others who are drawn to love others as themselves (including those who are not sure about the “God” part). None of us is quite there yet, but we’re not far. And there’s no reason to make this a competition among faith traditions. If we want to compete, we can compete with ourselves.
*Highly recommended reading: Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2006); Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews: A Lectionary Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).