Prepared for Wesley United, Montreal Sunday Service of November 4, 2018 (based on Mark 12:28-34 for Proper 26).
For the past three weeks we’ve read consecutive sections of Mark’s Gospel, we saw how three sets of men approached Jesus to ask him a question. These texts are so wonderfully crafted; we can miss so much with our short readings on Sunday mornings so it was nice to have a continuous reading for a while.
However, having jumped a few chapters ahead this week, we’ve missed the first part of our story today!
After Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, a series of religious authorities come to question him.
- The Chief priest and elders of the Temple ask him… with what authority is he teaching and performing miracles?[i]
- Some Pharisees, Jewish reformers, ask him… should we pay taxes to the Roman Emperor who is oppressing the Jewish people?[ii](That one sounded a lot like entrapment, to me! Is this radical guy going to say don’t pay, which is illegal, or is he going to align himself with the occupation? Which wouldn’t look good either. But Jesus comes up with a pretty good answer.)
- Then, some Sadducees, the religious conservatives, ask him… whether he believes in bodily resurrection, providing an especially complicated example of whether a remarried woman would have two husbands in heaven![iii]
- And then, one of the Scribes comes to him and asks… “Which commandment is the first of all?”[iv]
This is not a hard question. Now, there are some preachers who’d like you to believe that Jesus is just so much smarter than all the other Jewish religious leaders of his day, that he figured it out when they didn’t! But, as we heard from the Book of Deuteronomy earlier, the greatest commandment had been established—by God, no less. And ancient Jews recited its words as liturgical practice, similar to how we recite The Prayer Jesus Taught His Followers.[v]
Jesus is a good Jewish man, he knows the answer because he knows the teachings of the Torah. He says:
“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.’ … This is a passage from Deuteronomy, which we heard earlier [Deut. 6:4-9].
Then he says:
As a young boy, Jesus would have been taught the pillars of the faith, just as we try to instil the basics of our Christian faith through kid’s time, Sunday school, storybooks and conversation at home.
If you grew up in a faith community as a child, do you have memories of certain stories, verses, or prayers you were taught? If you didn’t grow up in a faith community, do you have other memories of adults trying to instil their values in you?
My parents really liked mottos and recited them often: “To know and not to do is not to know!” was a favourite. And, they said it often enough it likes to pop-into my head occasionally.
What’s interesting about this particular story is that Jesus enters into a theological conversation with this Scribe. It’s not a test, like with the other religious leaders.
He says this, in Jerusalem, the city that existed to house the Temple complex; the people who lived there year-round were all part of its functioning: priests, animal herders, temple scribes…. It is a very big deal to say something like that in Jerusalem.
And, maybe this Scribe had heard of Jesus, heard how the day before Jesus had walked into the Temple and told the people working and worshipping there that they had turned it into a “den of robbers”![viii]This is the story where Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and herded the animals outside.
Maybe the Scribe saw Jesus had something in common with him because Jesus criticizes the Temple system just as the Scribe does.
Now, Christianity has a dangerous history of interpreting these texts as anti-Jewish, and considering the events of these past few weeks, I think it is incredibly important to clarify a few things here.
- Jesus was a Jewish man, born of a Jewish mother; someone who went to synagogue, memorized Torah, discussed scripture with his companions and visited the Temple regularly.
- An internal debate around the authenticity of religious practices had existed within Judaism for centuries.
Both Isaiah and Hosea criticized God’s People and their religiosity. Amos delivered an especially pointed prophetic message to the House of Israel:
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
Wow! That is not an easy message to hear.
So, though it would be easy to say Judaism was all about rules, rules, rules, and Jesus brought authentic worship based in love, that is a misrepresentation of a rich faith history, and Jesus as a faithful man of the Jewish faith.
Prophets had been providing course correction for the Jewish people since before they started writing it all down.
How human, we all are, that we need those corrections.
A good translation of the word “to sin”, or hamartia in Greek, is to say you’ve “missed the mark”. Humans beings continue to miss the mark and get things wrong, God knows that and provides us with lots of help along the way.
Each of these passages shows us that humanity has known about God’s desires authentic, robust love for millennia. It is a love that engages all of who we are—our feelings, our understanding, and our actions.
Amos teaches us that worship without acts of justice is just noise. God requires more than words and posturing from us.
Each of these texts invites us to begin to look inward, at our own communities of faith, to ask whether we’re living out these two commandments in the work that we do.
Are we using love of God, love of self, and love of the other, as our lens when we make decisions about the work we do?
Is it influencing our committees? Our practice of hospitality?
Is our worship integrated alongside our justice work?
Are there people or places that make you want to say, “Wow, you’re not far from the kingdom of God!” What is about the way they put their faith into practice you find encouraging?
It is remarkable that we have inherited a faith tradition that encourages dialogue and thoughtful reflection on the scriptures and our purpose in this world.
We’re fortunate to have inherited a faith tradition that believes in educating children, asking them questions, and inviting them into the conversation. This work is the building blocks of the coming kingdom.
And, how remarkable that God had the foresight to send us those people, like the prophets and this scribe, to help us on our faith journey. Providing the course correction, we so often need, to love God more fully with our whole selves—with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.