“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ —this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.”
Prayer – There are no other commandments greater than these – and still they are so very difficult to embody and live. Remind us this day that these commandments are guidelines for the journey; they are daily decisions to love and to act with justice, humility and gratitude. Grant us the courage to be as faithful to loving as you do – amen.
Mark was a gifted storyteller and managed his short gospel narrative craftily. From the opening reference to a scribe – during Jesus’ first public action – to the final position of this group mocking the dying Jesus, none of would have predicted the story of our gospel passage this morning. The scribes, as a character group in Mark’s story, were intimately involved in the conspiracy to kill Jesus. This lasting impression fills the minds of most hearers making it difficult to hear any potentially neutral story about any member of the scribes – and yet that is what we have this morning.
Our gospel passage this morning falls within a series of conversations between Jesus and various religious and community leaders residing in Jerusalem. This was the final discussion initiated by one of these leaders, since no one ‘dared to ask him a question’ after this encounter.
The mention of a dispute in the beginning of our passage recalls the previous story in which Jesus held a theological conversation with the Sadducees over the belief in resurrection. The scribe in our passage apparently shared Jesus’ position, so he must have been a scribe associated with the Pharisees. In Matthew’s parallel passage he described this character as a lawyer from among the Pharisees.
Jesus debates the religious leaders throughout the Gospel narratives. Our first century scribe, lawyer, whatever, asked a question that wasn’t uncommon in theological debates during the first century. “Which commandment is greatest?” he asked Jesus. Jesus drew upon his Jewish roots to answer, citing the Shema, to love God with all of one’s heart, mind and strength. He drew from Leviticus as the second part of the love commandment. Jesus’ understanding of love was grounded in loving the other as an expression of loving God – and the scribe agreed. It is possible that neither Jew – Jesus nor the scribe – could imagine one kind of love without the other.
Part of the shock of this story was the agreement of the Jerusalem scribe. Throughout Mark’s gospel, the scribes were always evaluating Jesus’ words and activities. They judged Jesus theologically, charging him with blasphemy because he forgave someone’s sins; they busted Jesus’ chops for eating with sinners; they questioned his disciples lack of hand-washing; they probed the authority in which he did everything; they wanted to kill Jesus because of his popularity among the non-elite; thus, working with Judas to betray him and eventually assembling a trial and crucifixion for this man they just couldn’t control. Near the end of the story, they – the betraying neighbors of Jesus stood by and mocked him on the cross.
But this one scribe decided to engage Jesus. Further, the scribe took it one step beyond by adding that this kind of love was ‘more important than . . . sacrifices,’ a conclusion, in this setting that seemed to be an implicit temple critique. Did this scribe have an anti-Temple bias? To be clear, Jesus didn’t advocate the ceasing of ‘offerings or sacrifices.’ Rather, Jesus believed in ‘love’ for God and neighbor as a priority over physical, religious sacrifices. Indeed, no Jew, or non-Jew for that matter, could imagine religion without animal sacrifices. So the agreement between Jesus and the scribe is another surprising twist found in Mark’s gospel.
Love God; love neighbor. Jesus’ greatest words have influenced Christian theology accordingly. But the context of this story is often forgotten. This was a story about an agreement between Jesus, Mark’s lead protagonist, and a scribe, a group member of Jesus’ leading archenemies. And this moment of harmony found in Mark’s gospel has forced me to take a pause – particularly in our cultural and religious context of 2018. Stories like this one, rare as they are within the Christian canon, must drive us to become more willing to open up to the other, including the faithful people within our own religious tradition and those without.
When I look at our cultural and religious context I see a significant amount of religious diversity scattered across the lens of our world. Some of that religious diversity I respect and accept readily – progressive, Native American, Judaism, Buddhism, much of the teachings of Islam to name just a few. Some of that religious diversity I detest and more often not declare as evil personified – the religious right that espouses fear and rigid fundamental beliefs across any theological tradition. Some of the cultural diversity I respect and accept readily while there is a rather significant part of our current cultural landscape that I detest and think of as evil – the nationalistic, white privilege, hateful rhetoric that seems to be the lead story on the nightly news every day.
How do I, how do we, embody love for God in a world that seems even more divisive and hateful than just a few years ago? How do I, how do we show love to people who espouse everything that I detest about human behavior – blaming, shaming, abusive, scapegoating, differentiating words that set us against each other? How do I, how do we stand tall in a forest of hatred, loving God and loving our neighbor? How do we put skin to that kind of love?
I will be honest with you – I have a much easier time loving God than I do far too many of my neighbors. Even in those dark nights of my soul when I wondered where God was in the murky, messy, devastating moments of my life, there has always been a spark of a reminder that God does not, will not abandon and forget me, or you, or any of God’s beloved children. Doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments when I, when we, when any of us haven’t felt alone in this world. When I look into the eyes of my grandchildren, the eyes of a dog, the eyes of my wife, the eyes of any number of you and others, I frequently see God’s reflection in those eyes and it is easy to love God.
Loving my neighbor is much, much harder. Just this past week a white nationalist walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh where a Jewish family has gathered on the 8th day after a child was born to name him and a callous and despicable act of violence occurred. I have a really hard time loving Robert Bowers. With the election coming up in just a few days, the political rhetoric on the part of Donald Trump and his minions has been hard for me to hear and accept. I have a really hard time loving Donald Trump who is not and never will be my President.
And perhaps the most difficult challenge I have faced this week began last Saturday while Valerie and I were in Georgia with her family. Saturday while we were celebrating my brother-in-law’s birthday I got a call from my daughter that she was leaving her boyfriend due to verbal/emotional and physical abuse. I had suspected the verbal and emotional abuse for a long time as he is a controlling and manipulative person. But when she told me what he did to her physically – well let’s just say the only love I had for him was that I would have loved to wrapped my hands around his neck and plant him in the ground – permanently. So this week I have spent most of my time in Asheville, helping Erin, supporting her as she is desperately trying to break the cycle of this abusive relationship. I have held her as she sobbed about what she allowed herself to go through. I have coached her on how to respond to the constant texting begging and asking for another chance. I have helped her talk to my granddaughter Quinn about why daddy can’t live there anymore. I have worked really hard to empower her and not just pick her up and move her to Texas right now, cause that wouldn’t help her in the long run. And I have worked really hard to love Brandon, and I am just not there and to be honest with you, I’m not sure I ever want to love him again.
I share those things with you because Jesus’ commandment to love has to have some skin on it, whether that is loving God or loving our neighbor. It is not just some pie in the sky wishful divine proclamation. There are some things I do; you do, each day that reflects our love for God. Sighing deeply at a sunrise or sunset, watching with gratitude as our pets run around and frolic, engaging and protecting our creation, speaking out against injustice and oppression, standing up for our neighbor who happens to speak a different language or has a different color of skin. You and I both love our neighbors in some incredible ways – helping our friends at South Main, providing Christmas gifts for the children at New Foundations, recognizing and welcoming our neighbors regardless of any differences, and many others.
Perhaps the lesson for our gospel passage this morning is that we can agree to love God and love our neighbors. We can put some skin on that love in a variety of ways. And perhaps we can agree that there are some neighbors who despite our most divine desire, we just can’t love – and for those neighbors – we can let God love them because I can imagine that at some time in my life, and maybe yours, I was that unlovable neighbor – and God loved me even then too. God’s love has plenty of skin on it. Our challenge from Jesus’ commandment is to put some skin on our love as well – and trust that God’s love can manage when we can’t. Thanks be to God – amen.