Living by Heart – Reflections on Mark 12: 28-34

by Dr. Alyce McKenzie on Monday, October 25, 2021

Living by Heart – Reflections on Mark 12: 28-34


I picture the scribe standing off to the side, eavesdropping on groups of opponents who come in waves to trap Jesus with trick questions. If the scribe turned and spoke to us, I imagine he might say:

"Why are you looking at me with such suspicion? Do you think that I'm here to ask Jesus a trick question? It's true I am a scribe, a lawyer. It's true I spend my time teaching our pupils about the 631 commandments in the Torah, arguing about which one is the greatest. It's true many of my colleagues have been collaborating with the chief priests to get Jesus killed since he came into town and cleansed the Temple a few days ago (11:15-19). But not me. I'm the exception that proves the rule. I think he's the real deal. I hate to see him backed in a corner over there as one after another group of his haters (chief priests, elders, Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees) come with trick questions to trap him—questions about his authority (11:27-33), about taxes (11:13-17), and about which of a woman's seven husbands she will be with in the resurrection time (11:18-27). Jesus is a good debater, but they'll get him eventually. They don't live by the heart of the Law. They live by fear, by the book, and by power over the poor. They can't let a heart like his keep beating. The last group is leaving! I'm about to get my chance to ask a real question, not a trick question."

And then the scribe says to Jesus, "Teacher, what is the greatest commandment?"

And do you know what Jesus answers? He quotes the Shema, the prayer that is central to Jewish identity: "Shema Yisrael. The Lord your God, the Lord is One."He combines Deuteronomy 5 with Leviticus 19:18: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neighbor as yourself."

Defining "Heart" in the 21st Century

For his first-century listeners, Jesus probably could have stopped with "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart," because all that follows (soul, mind, and strength) are implied in the biblical understanding of heart. But we twenty-first-century listeners have shrunk the definition of heart to emotions. So when we hear "Love God with your whole heart," we might think Jesus means "Have only happy feelings about God."

Our culture defines the heart as feelings, expressed in such sayings as "I gave you my heart. You broke my heart. I wear my heart on my sleeve." It's as if we would all join in a chorus of Albert Morris' 1974 song, Feelings:

Nothing more than feelings
Trying to forget my feelings of love
Wo o o feelings
Wo o o feelings
Again in my heart.
For all my life I'll feel it
I wish I'd never met you, girl
You'll never come again.

Says N.T. scholar Douglas Hare, when commenting on the parallel version of this scene in Matthew 22, "In an age when the word 'love' is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that Deuteronomy 6:5 demands of us, but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously. (Hare, Interpretation, 260)

When Jesus commands us to love God and neighbor with our whole hearts, he is not the first to pair the two loves. The apocryphal book The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs refers frequently to loving the Lord and the neighbor. In Luke's Gospel the lawyer who questions Jesus is the one who identifies these two commandments (Luke 10:27). (Hare, Interpretation, 259)

In the first century, there were two competing rabbinical schools, that of Hillel and that of Shammai. As the story goes, once there was a Gentile who came before Shammai and said to him, "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot." Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying, "That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it."

What Does It Mean to Love God with Our Whole Heart?

Loving God and loving our neighbor with our whole heart is more than just having positive emotions about them. I'm reminded of all the weddings I've performed in which I've said to the bride and groom, "Jane, will you love John?" and "John, will you love Jane?" Not, "Do you love?"

Feelings. Nothing more than feelings? Loving God with your heart means bringing everything to God. The heart in Hebrew and N.T. understanding is the home of emotions, also of decision making. It is the home of caring, but also of character, commitment, creativity, and carry-through. To love God with your whole heart means to love God with everything you've got! Here are some examples of what the Bible has to say about what the heart is and what it does:

  1. Trust in the Lord with all your heart.
  2. Blessed are the pure in heart.
  3. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
  4. I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds (Ps 9:1).
  5. God knows the secrets of the heart (Ps 44:21).
  6. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Ps 73:26).
  7. 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 (Deut 6:4-5).
  8. You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead (Deut 11:18).

The scribe comes today to give Jesus his heart. In this action, he shows himself to be a better disciple than the disciples. In Mark, the disciples don't love Jesus with their whole hearts. They love themselves and seek prestige. But other people actually do a better job of following Jesus' words, including those who seek out the Savior and bring him their whole hearts with contents good and bad. They are the paralytic's friends who make a hole in the roof to lower their friend to Jesus (Mark 2). They are the poor troubled man living among gravestones in Gerasene who ran to Jesus and cried out to him in his torment (Mark 5). They are the woman who brings a jar of alabaster ointment and anoints Jesus with sweet perfume (Mark 14). They are the scribe who is supposed to know everything, but comes to Jesus with his question—not to trick him, but to find out the answer so he can build his life around it.

Bewildered, Bleeding, and Been Around

I was talking with a pastor friend of mine recently. She said on any given Sunday in her church in suburban Dallas, she speaks to three different audiences: the bewildered, the bleeding, and the been-arounds.

The bewildered were baptized and confirmed and drifted away. They're back. They recognize basic vocabulary words like Resurrection and salvation, but only vaguely. They're not exactly sure why they're here or what they need.

The bleeding are those who just got bad news about the return of their cancer or the departure of their spouse.

The been-arounds are those who have been coming to church for years, but have a feeling Garrison Keillor is talking about them when he says that just standing in a garage doesn't make a person a car. There has to be something more.

On any given Sunday, there is an 80-year-old woman who is still worrying about something she said at Bible study last week: "I've been in church all my life, but sometimes I wonder if the Resurrection is just a story." There is a young man who can't stay in rehab, who is sitting behind a pillar and contemplating how his friends and family might be better off without him to worry about. There is the young mom or dad who wishes they knew more about the faith to teach the baby they hold in their arms.

Bewildered, bleeding or been around, God's command is the same: "Love me with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

God doesn't want much. God just wants your heart, the seat of your emotions, your inner character, and your decision-making. God just wants your caring, your character, your creativity, and your carry-through. By no coincidence, that is just what God gives to us, whether we're bewildered, bleeding, or been around.

Strengthened by God's giving God's heart to us, we can give ours to our neighbor.

Sources Consulted

Douglas R. A. Hare, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993).


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