Historical Culture Context
Love, Hate, and Group Attachment
The scribe who asks Jesus “which commandment is first of all?” is not hostile. His question is not a test or a trap but rather the solicitation of an opinion. Whatever Jesus answers can be the topic for further discussion.
This is also one of the rare times when Jesus answers a question directly and quickly: “Love the Lord God above all, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus weaves together two elements of his tradition: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. Familiar as this answer is to modern believers, the word "love" and its correlative “hate” carry different meanings in the Mediterranean world than they do in the modern Western world.
For modem, introspective, individualistic Western believers, these words relate to internal, psychological states. They invariably entail feeling, emotion, affection.
In the ancient, non-introspective, group-centered Mediterranean world, these words involved primarily an external, concrete expression. Affection, emotion, feeling may or may not have been involved. The concrete, external expression of love is attachment to one's group or attachment to a person in the group. It is the kinship group, the village group, or the faction group that one joined at some point in life that mattered above all.
To love God above all means to become attached exclusively to Yhwh-God to the exclusion of any and all other deities. It would also entail attaching oneself to the group that clusters itself distinctly around this God.
To love one's neighbor as oneself means to become exclusively attached to the people in one's own neighborhood or village as if they were family. The full context of Leviticus 19:18 which Mark's Jesus quotes makes it quite clear that “neighbor” means “fellow ethnic.” “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
This same idea characterizes “hate,” the correlative of love. Luke's Jesus says, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple" (14:26). Jesus is not commanding his followers to cultivate a negative emotion toward their intimate kinfolk but rather to detach themselves from the kinship group “for the sake of Jesus and the gospel” and join the Jesus movement.
The scribe who perfectly understands the cultural meanings just sketched wholeheartedly agrees and adds, “this is ‘much more’ than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus approves his wise answer and grants him a public mark of honor that surely impressed the audience: "you are very close to enjoying God's favor."
The kind of group attachment that characterized the cultural world of Jesus is highly desired but difficult to attain in Western culture. As precious a cultural value as it is, Western individualism proves to be the biggest obstacle to community. Westerners tend to be very pragmatic with regard to group attachment. They join a group and remain members only as long as the group meets their personal needs. When it fails to do so, they drop out and join another group on similar terms.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University