St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Ruth 1.1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9.11-14; Mark 12.28-34
Over the past few weeks we have traced the journey of Jesus and his disciples as they made their way to Jerusalem. Today’s reading is set within the context of considerable interaction in and near the temple. The chief priests, scribes and elders have challenged Jesus by asking, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority . . .” (Mark 11.28; NRSV)? Jesus, knowing their intent to trap him, told them he would respond to their question if they would first answer his question – “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” The chief priests, scribes, and elders realized they were hooked on the horns of a dilemma – if they said from heaven, Jesus would then ask why they did not believe, but if they said of human origin, the crowd, which held John the Baptist in high esteem, might rise up against them. They took the easy way out and said they did not know. Jesus then told them he would not tell them the source of his authority.
The chief priests, scribes, and elders next sent some Pharisees and Herodians to trap him. They asked if it was lawful to pay taxes to the emperor? Jesus asked why they were putting him to the test. Jesus asked for a coin, then asked whose image and title was on the coin. They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then Jesus said, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12.16-17; NRSV). The Pharisees and the Herodians were amazed.
A scribe happens to overhear some of these disputes. Impressed by Jesus’ answers, he asks: “Which commandment is the first of all” (Mark 12.28; NRSV). Unlike the previous instances of questioning, Jesus gave him a direct answer: “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” (Mark 12.29-31; NRSV). The scribe commends Jesus’ answer: “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” (Mark 12.32-33; NRSV).
Notice the sincerity of this interaction! There is no guile here – no effort to entrap Jesus. The interchange is characterized by purity of heart. The reading closes as follows: “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” (Mark 12.34; NRSV).
We are familiar with these two commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor as our self. But the context and manner of Mark’s presentation is interesting. Scholars believe that the intimate connection between these commandments had been recognized for some time. Yet there is a subtle difference in the way the commandment to love God is pronounced by Jesus as opposed to how it appears in its ancient context in Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy gets a lot of bad press; it is seldom one’s favorite book of the Bible, yet it contains a great deal of wisdom. It consists of three farewell speeches delivered by Moses while the Israelites are encamped just outside the Promised Land. The basic message is this: As you take possession of this land, a land occupied by foreign peoples and foreign gods, remember these things. Concerning the peoples’ relationship with God, Moses states “Hear, O Israel; The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (6.4-5; NRSV).
Jesus added the phrase, “with all your mind.” Those who came to question or entrap Jesus were the religious leaders of the day. Had they truly loved God with all their mind, would they have been attempting to entrap Jesus? I am reminded once again of James 4.8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (NRSV). Unlike the scribe who drew near to Jesus and asked about the greatest commandment, all the others were double-minded. They did not love God with all their mind!
And what of the commandment to love our neighbor? This commandment is fully stated in Leviticus 19.17-18: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (NRSV). Those who came to entrap Jesus not only failed to love God with all their mind, they also failed to love their neighbor as they loved themselves, for they would not, they did not love their Lord.
The scribe who questioned Jesus with a pure heart recognized the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor was of far more importance than maintaining the wealth, power, and prestige that accompanied a system of whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. It is no wonder Jesus told him he was not far from the kingdom of God.
We might also raise the question – “What does it mean to love God with all one’s mind? I suspect many very comfortably love God with a portion of their mind – we have become rather adept at giving God a piece of our mind, some small corner where we isolate God from all the other content of our mind. This is a rather comfortable arrangement, for we do not have to ask how we integrate God with the latest developments associated with a scientific world view. We carefully and comfortably compartmentalize. If God is the God of all truth, if God is the creator and sustainer of all that is, it must all somehow fit together. Part of our challenge, and our responsibility, is to seriously wrestle with how we integrate our knowledge with a theistic world view. Many who profess to be intellectually honest have given up and proclaimed themselves to be agnostic or atheistic.
This past week, the students in my ethics class have been wrestling with two questions: Does life have meaning, and if so, what gives life meaning? We have considered many philosophical points of view. In light of my own faith journey, I found the following statements from Bertrand Russel to be interesting:
Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.
I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy . . . next because it relieves loneliness . . . finally, because in the union of love, I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that poets and saints have imagined.
With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.
Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. . . . I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.
This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me. (Pojman, The Moral Life, pp. 558-559)
Note again: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and the unbearable pity for the suffering of humankind. I believe these are present in a deep and abiding faith. Loving God and our neighbor help to meet our longing for love. Knowledge gives us a deeper awareness of the pain and suffering about us. As Frederick Buechner (Wishful Thinking, p. 119) says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Here, we live more deeply into loving God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving our neighbor as we love our self. Here we discover deep meaning and true joy!