30 years in and Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (1988) is more relevant than ever. We’ve got four more Sundays to celebrate it! This week’s commentary homes in on Mark 12:28-34.
The man’s question concerning the “first of all the commandments” is a common topic of rabbinic discussion, but could also be interpreted as yet another attempt to get Jesus to reveal his own political commitments. Jesus’ answer at first glance seems cautious in its orthodoxy: he quotes from the Shema (Dt 6:4f), with minor changes to the LXX text. Suddenly, however, he adds a citation of Leviticus 19:18 about obligation to neighbor, and concludes that “No other command is greater than these.”
…The point Mark is trying to make by this bold conflation is consistent with his ideology: heaven must come to earth–there is no love of God except in love of neighbor.
The Leviticus tradition is of particular interest, for it defines love of neighbor in terms of nonexploitation. The verse Jesus cites is the culmination to a litany of commands prohibiting the oppression and exploitation of Israel’s weak and poor (Lv 19:9-117), including:
- leave your field for the sojourner to glean
- do not steal, deal falsely, or profane God
- do not oppress the neighbor, exploit employees, or discriminate against the disabled
- do no injustice or show partiality in judgment, or slander or witness against the neighbor
But according to Mark’s narrative, these are precisely the commands violated regularly by the dominant Jewish social groups, especially the scribes.
Surprisingly, the scribe not only appears to agree wholeheartedly with Jesus’ assessment, but reinforces it with allusions to the scriptural tradition that gives priority to obedience over the temple cult (Hos 6:6; I Sm 15:22). This far the scribe is willing to go, and Jesus recognizes that he is “thoughtful” (nounechos; only here in the Greek Bible). But this adjective (from the root nous, “mind”) allows only that the scribe has intellectually grasped what Jesus has said. The story ends with Jesus’ declaration that the scribe is “not far” from the kingdom of God; Jesus does not issues an invitation for him to follow. “Not far” once again implies that orthodoxy is not enough; it must be accompanied by the practice of justice to one’s neighbor. Mark appears to reject the possibility of scribal discipleship. Why? Because however aware of biblical imperatives they might be, they are by definition committed to a system that oppresses. To repudiate that system would be to stop being a scribe within it.
The debating section of the Jerusalem narrative closes with a declaration of “victory” for Jesus: Mark tells us that no one had the courage to challenge Jesus thereafter. He has thrown the commercial special interests out of the temple and in their place assumed a role as “teacher.” He has met challenges and foiled plots with brilliant rhetorical skill. He has gone nose to nose with the political leaders and the intellectuals, questioning the legitimacy of their respective vocations insofar as they are based upon privilege and exploitation. And in the end he has silenced his social and political opponents, and done it on their own home ground: the temple. In other words, Jesus appears to have “bound the strong men,” and ransacked their house.