Part of the brilliance of Mark’s gospel is in the author’s ability to draw the reader into the story with such ease. Mark is intentional to mention the proper name of several characters including: Simon and his brother Andrew (1:16), James son of Zebedee and his brother John (2:14), Jairus (5:22), Blind Bartimaeus (10:46), Simon the Leper (14:3), Simon of Cyrene (15:21), Joseph of Arimathea (15:43) and Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome (16:1). The particularity of these characters is important because each demonstrates how the good news of the Kingdom of God (1:15) has come near to peasants, synagogue rulers, the blind, the lepers, the foreigner, and to women.
At the same time, the gospel writer omits proper names of several characters, perhaps some with intention. The descriptors of these character leave room in the imagination of the reader or hearer to see through the character’s point of view. The list of unnamed characters is longer: “a man with leprosy” (1:40), “some men came, bringing to him a paralytic” (2:3), “a man with a shriveled hand” (3:3), “a woman who was bleeding” (5:25) “the woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia” (7:26), “a blind man” (8:22), “a man” who had “great wealth” (10:14; 22), “one of the teachers of the law” (12:28), “a poor widow” (12:42), “a women with an alabaster jar” (14:3), “a young man” who “fled naked” (14:51), “a servant girl” (14:69), “one man” who “ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink” (15:36) and “a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side” (16:4). The most prominent example of this list of the reader/hearer being drawn into the story is the contrast of the young man who flees from the garden naked in 14:51 (and presumably ashamed) and how a young man is represented sitting at the right side of where the body of Jesus should have been. This character is dressed in white. There is a story of redemption here for this character. This character’s story is the story of all who believe in the good news of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
This gospel lection includes an unnamed character who functions as a mirror to the reader and hearer. The three synoptic gospels contain a story of Jesus being questioned in regards to the greatest commandment (Luke 10:25-28; Matthew 22:24-40). Luke’s story is the most different as Jesus has not yet set his sights on Jerusalem nor cleansed the temple. Matthew’s gospel does place this story after the cleansing of the temple, but the role of the teacher of the law is quite different than Mark’s gospel and more akin to that of Luke’s telling. In Matthew and Luke, the teacher of the law is out to trap Jesus in his own words. In Matthew, the opponent is out to pounce after he, a Pharisee, has seen that Jesus has defeated his other opponents, the Sadducees. In Luke’s gospel, the teacher of the law offers Jesus a snide, “and who is my neighbor?” (10:29) and Jesus responds by telling him the parable of the Good Samaritan.
What is striking about Mark’s gospel is that Jesus’ conversation with the teacher of the law isn’t combative but rather congenial. He approaches Jesus with a curiosity, not trying to trap, but with a posture of seeking the truth. The teacher of the law is able to speak with wisdom and by the end Jesus affirms his response, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). This is not what we would expect to read, especially given the context of the conversation.
Jesus has entered Jerusalem triumphantly. He has cleansed the temple and cursed the fig tree. He is standing in the temple courts debating his opponents. Jesus has disrupted the religious establishment, so much so that those who are in power are looking for a way to kill him. But in this moment, this particular unnamed teacher of the law approaches Jesus differently. His question is one of seeking understanding about what really matters. When Jesus answers the teacher of the law that the greatest commandment is the Shema “Hear, O Israel!”(Deut 6:4) and the second is “love you neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18 NSRV), it is a reminder to all those looking on of the purpose of worship at Zion: to relish the presence of God in fullness. This joy is best described by the Psalmist:
1 How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! 2 My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God (Ps 84:1-2).
The presence of God compels the faithful to live a life congruent with that first love: to love our neighbors in the ordinary and mundane of life.
The teacher of the law gets it: “this is much more important that all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” It is the words of the teacher of the law, not Jesus, that criticizes the practices of those in power where sacrifice became more important than mercy for one’s neighbor. It rings of Hosea’s oracle, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, NRSV).
The teacher of the law in Mark’s gospel is able to articulate a sign of the kingdom: true love of God and love of neighbor is true worship. Given the context, the words of the teacher of the law become so important. They are in the temple. The aromas or burnt offerings and sacrifices inhabit the olfactory as they speak. He is speaking against the system from which he has gained his power. Yet, he gets it. The sacrifices are in vain if love of God and neighbor is void. Love of God and neighbor is what matters.
As a symbol of what is to come, the fig tree has withered. Catastrophe will come when the Temple’s stones will no longer stand on one another. Jerusalem will fall in AD 70. But not all hope is lost because the system of the Temple cult is not what matters most. The greatest command still is the greatest. Through the hypostatic union God has forever united Godself to humans and the body that contains two natures is the real temple. Jesus is where we find heaven and earth meet. That body – the broken and mutilated body of Jesus – is mysteriously near and present with us when we gather in his name. There is no catastrophe – not even crucifixion or complete destruction – that can ever keep us from full love of God and giving all of ourselves to God. When the catastrophe comes, love of God and neighbor is all that matters.
Mark sets the preacher up to address the posture of one coming to Jesus. This would be opponent reminds us that we are to think about our first love and our truest affections. Is our desire in worship to be transformed to love God with our hearts, minds, souls, and strengths so that we can be sent into the world to love our neighbor? When Jesus reminds us that the heart of the law is love of God and love of neighbor, will we respond wisely?