This is one of the rare occasions in the Gospels where Jesus and religious officials see eye to eye. And no wonder.
Anyone familiar with the Prophets, particularly those who lived and wrote before the exile in Babylon like Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah and First Isaiah (i.e. the source of Isaiah Chapters 1 to 39), will see how the scribe speaks out of a tradition that while not against religious rituals like animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple sees justice and true faith as the priority.
By Jesus’ time the Jews had lived through exile in Babylon and had mostly thrived – so much so that scholars agree that it was a minority of them who returned under Persian rule to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. While worship there was re-established, the faith took on two important aspects. One was, certainly, focused on the Temple, but the other – the religious practice of most Jews outside Jerusalem, including Jesus – focused on the local synagogue. The latter form was strongly based on ethics and maintaining ritual purity, e.g. rules of diet and regular prayers.
In his mission Jesus did not abolish such practices; rather he sought to reform them according to the spirit of the Law, as opposed to obsessive legal literalism. He sought to get his followers to see what was behind these laws, getting to their deeper meaning, and applying them to the lived reality of people’s experience. His point is beautifully summed up in his observation that the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath.
This remarkable unnamed scribe is an important reminder to us not to assume that all religious leaders are cut from the same cloth, particularly legalistic cloth. Jesus was not alone in his mission to reform religion and social practice.
What should we make of this today? I think the strongest message is that, like Jesus and his friendly scribe companion, we need to go beyond narrow religious literalism, beyond legalistic thinking, beyond blind adherence to the ‘tried and trusted’, and discern new ways of living our belief in our time and circumstances. We need to get back to the threefold essence of faith (all faiths, I would add) – love of God, love of neighbour and love of self – and draw on our faith traditions as a resource for living a holy and good life.