The Jewishness of Jesus

Today’s reading from Mark 12 concerns what is often called the love commandment. It urges us to love God and our neighbor. It is sometimes referred to as the double love commandment because it involves both love of God and love of neighbor. It is frequently held up as the distinctive feature of Jesus’ teaching and as what makes Christianity different from Judaism. Many contrast Christian love with what they describe as Jewish legalism. A closer look at today’s readings, however, indicates that such claims are incorrect. These readings lead us to reflect on the Jewishness of Jesus, of his teaching and of the scribe who is his dialogue partner.

That Jesus lived his life in the land of Israel, what we call the Holy Land, is clear from all the ancient sources. He and his first disciples were Jews. Most, if not all, of his earthly ministry was directed toward his own Jewish people. The literary forms—parables, wisdom sayings, prophetic oracles and so forth—in which he expressed his teachings were thoroughly Jewish. The topics he taught about—the kingdom of God, concern for the poor, wise and righteous behavior and so forth—had their roots in Israel’s Scriptures. And the question he is asked in today’s passage from Mark 12 (“Which is the first of all the commandments?”) was asked of other contemporary Jewish teachers. While Shammai dismissed the question abruptly, Hillel answered with what sounds much like the so-called Golden Rule of Jesus: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

Jesus’ response to the question was thoroughly Jewish. In fact, his answer consists of two quotations from the Old Testament. The first quotation is from Deut 6:5, part of today’s Old Testament selection and the kernel of the Jewish daily prayer from antiquity to the present that is known as the Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart….” The second quotation is from Lev 19:18, part of the so-called Holiness Code: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On the whole, this is a thoroughly Jewish answer to a thoroughly Jewish question. The love commandment of Jesus is good Jewish teaching. Its originality lies in his bringing together and highlighting two passages from the Jewish source par excellence.

The scribe whom Jesus engages in dialogue in Mark 12 is Jewish. In one sense that is obvious, given the narrative framework in which the Gospels were written. But we need to pay more attention to the identity and conduct of Jesus’ questioner. As a scribe he was an expert in Israel’s Scriptures and law. He thus combined the roles of theologian and lawyer. Throughout the Gospels the scribes are generally hostile to Jesus and often serve as his opponents in debates. But this scribe is different. He is not hostile. He asks an honest question and expresses agreement with Jesus’ answer. He not only repeats Jesus’ answer and makes it his own but also takes it a step further by adding that obeying the double love commandment is worth more than holocausts and other material sacrifices in worshiping the God of Israel.

The love commandment is not unique to Christianity. And to dismiss Judaism as pure legalism is to caricature the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish tradition. Reflection on Mark 12 shows that the Christian love commandment comes from a Jewish teacher, is based on two quotations from the Old Testament and is affirmed by a Jewish scribe for whom Jesus shows respect and affection (“You are not far from the kingdom of God”).

One of the great achievements of the Second Vatican Council was its call for a new, more positive relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people (see Nostra Aetate, No. 4). While there certainly have been bumps in the road during the past 40 years, this relationship has surely been one of the council’s successes. Mutual efforts along the way have made many Christians and Jews realize how much we have in common both in our past and in our present. A “Jewish” text like today’s reading from Mark 12 can help us see this point more clearly and inspire us to join our Jewish brothers and sisters as we walk along the way to greater union with God and one another.

Today’s selection from the letter to the Hebrews comes at the end of the long, complex and very Jewish argument in Chapter 7 about the high priesthood of Christ. Drawing extensively on various Old Testament texts, the author explains how Jesus can be called a priest. What is especially important in today’s excerpt is Jesus’ continuing role as an intercessor for all who approach his heavenly Father.

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