Renowned christologist Fr. Pat Gaffney once mentioned a conversion he had with his deaf and mute mother shortly before she died. Something he said triggered a brow twisting question. "Are you saying Jesus was a Jew?" she signed. Pat immediately signed back, "Of course, mother, he was a Jew." His mother thought for a few seconds, broke out in a wide smile and signed, "Well, at least he converted before he died!"
Pat never told us what he said next, but all scholars agree, Jesus never did convert. He lived and died as a Jew. Today's gospel passage clearly demonstrates his commitment to that ancient faith.
As a Pharisee, Jesus was determined to follow all 613 Laws of Moses - not just the 10 Commandments. And just as we construct top 10 lists today, so his fellow Pharisees tried to surface the most important of those regulations. No doubt he frequently dealt with the question, "Which is the first of all the commandments?"
Like any good Jew, Jesus turns to the Hebrew Scriptures for an answer. Today every pious Jew integrates his quote from our Deuteronomy reading into his or her morning prayers. "Hear, O Israel! Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone! Therefore, you shall love Yahweh your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength." Jewish faith always revolves around its dedication to Yahweh. The writer of the earliest source of Genesis - the 10th century BCE Yahwist - tells us in chapter 15 that "Abraham (the first Jew) put his faith in Yahweh, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness." Without total faith in Yahweh there is no Judaism.
Jesus immediately follows #1 with #2. Going back to the third Torah book, Leviticus 19:18, he reminds the scribe of one of the most quoted Mosaic laws: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." In an oft-mentioned rabbinic story, when a Gentile asks the revered rabbi Gamaliel to summarize Judaism in the time it takes him to "stand on one foot," the rabbi simply gives the same quote Jesus provides the scribe. It's an essential element in Jewish faith and action.
Yet as much as Mark's narrative paints a picture of Jesus, the good Jew, it also goes one step further, telling us in what his reform of Judaism is rooted. "When Jesus saw that he answered with understanding, he said to (the scribe), 'You are not far from the kingdom of God.'"
Though the author of Hebrews theologically emphasizes Jesus' essential difference from Jewish priests who offer sacrifices for sins, it would appear the historical Jesus never conceived of his mission in those terms. As far as we can tell from the gospels, this Galilean carpenter-turned-itinerant-preacher went town to town, synagogue to synagogue simply proclaiming that God's working effectively right here and now in everyone's life: that God's kingdom is in our midst.
Of course, as Jesus said back in Mark 1, at the beginning of his public ministry, in order to be able to perceive that kingdom, one must go through a "repentance:" a total change in one's value system, a 180 degree turn in what one thinks important in his or her life. In this case, if the scribe really makes love and dedication to God and neighbor the focus of his life, he'll also discover God working in that life.
Our zeroing in on God and neighbor is a means to an end. For Jesus, that end isn't just getting into heaven; it's experiencing God's presence long before our physical deaths. Jesus is convinced that our life is too good and too important to waste on just preparing for eternity.